The fruit of American persimmons have always been eaten as a wild food by animals and humans. Native Americans collected the ripe fruit in the fall and dried them for winter consumption. Persimmon fruit are nutritious. While high in fructose, they are a good source of vitamins A and C. They contain manganese, which is important for healthy mucous membranes and skin. The fruit is also a source of fiber and antioxidants such as beta-carotene and lycopene.
In areas of the southeast where persimmons are plentiful, hunters are keenly aware of the location of trees and the annual ripening of the crop. Deer love to eat the fallen fruit in the fall. Though the first varieties were selected from the wild and named over 100 years ago, American persimmons have not become a commercial crop and are largely cultivated by hobbyists today.
Persimmons have a wide native range, from New Haven, CT to Florida, west to Kansas and Texas. They are rated hardy to USDA zone 4, so a gardener in any part of Connecticut can plant with confidence that it will survive the winter.
Persimmons are not fussy when it come to growing conditions. Well-drained sandy loam is preferred, but dry sandy soils with low fertility will also do. They are pH adaptable. A full sun location is best for vigorous growth.
In an ideal site, a mature persimmon tree can reach 35-60’ tall with a canopy spread of 20-35’. Training when young and annual pruning can greatly reduce this size, cultivated trees can be reasonably managed at 15-20’ tall. Persimmons seem to grow much more slowly in the north than in the south.Persimmons are a member of the ebony family; in fact American persimmons are the only native members of this largely tropical family of trees. The woods is quite hard and until the advent of iron dropforge technology in the late 1800s, persimmon wood was used for making driving heads for golf clubs. Today, the wood which is also known as ‘white ebony’ is prized by woodworking hobbyists and is still used for billiard cues, veneer and hardwood flooring.
The trees are generally considered to be free of pests and diseases. As a native plant, persimmons are certainly afflicted by fewer maladies than exotics like apples or peaches. The one fungus to watch for is anthracnose, which can cause some of the foliage to turn a mottled black in late summer. There are no insect pests of note, though all manner of critters are interested in the ripe fruit. Deer have a taste for the new growth. A protective wire cage is highly recommended for the first few years in the ground to allow a persimmon tree to reach a size where it can withstand deer browse.
The elliptical, lustrous jade green foliage is late to emerge in the spring. The bark on mature trees is distinctively pebbled and scaly, leading to its southern nickname of “alligator bark.”
Some American persimmons exhibit the spectacular bright red fall foliage of their Asian cousins, though most have their leaves turn a golden yellow. The foliage falls from the tree soon after the first frost, and the ripe orange fruit hang from the naked branches.
Persimmons are easily grown from seed. Cold stratification is necessary to break seed dormancy. Click here for more on persimmon propagation. Since trees are dioecious; seedlings are either male or female, planting grafted cultivars is preferable to seedlings if space is limited and fruit production is a goal. Some cultivars will produce both male and female flowers; others are parthenocarpic, meaning they will produce seedless fruit without pollination.
Most commercially grown varieties of Asian persimmons are non-astringent. An example is ‘Fuyu,’ the apple-sized fruit of this cultivar can be eaten while still crisp. It is sweet without a hint of bitterness. Unfortunately no American persimmon exhibits this trait, all have fiercely astringent fruit until they are dead ripe. The unripe fruit contain high levels of tannins, when eaten these bind to proteins in the mouth and cause the odd and unpleasant sensation of puckering dryness.
Many sources state that the ripening and attendant loss of astringency is brought on by the first frost. This is not the case, the fruit continues to ripen after the frost. The best way to judge ripeness is by taste. I have found that most trees ripen their fruit by mid to late October. The flavor of fully ripe fruit is excellent, like spiced apricots marinated in honey.
What American persimmons fruit lack in size, the largest is only about 1.5’’ across, they make up for in sheer quantity. A mature tree can bear hundreds of pounds of fruit. Ripe persimmons do not store well, and so there are a variety of ways to process the fruit. Most common is to pulp the fruit, this can then be dried into fruit leather or used in baking. Persimmon cookies and bread are traditional desserts, which are still popular today in areas of the mid-West and south.
Another intriguing use of processed persimmons that is arousing some interest in the foodie world is persimmon beer. Known colloquially as ‘possum toddy,’ after that creature’s affinity for the ripe fruit, the alcoholic fermented drink was described in Dishes and Beverages of the Old South (1913) as “the poor relation of champagne- with the advantage that nobody is ever the worse for drinking it.” This rather dubious claim may soon be put to the test. A 2014 headline from Modern Farmer, the publication of record for farm to table hipsters, reported “Craft Brewery Resurrects 300-Year-Old Persimmon Beer Recipe.”
If, as it is my hope, I have inspired some gardeners, to plant ‘the fruit of the Gods’ in their backyards, the following cultivars are recommended for New England: ‘Szukis,’ ‘Gordon,’ ‘Early Golden,’ ’John Rick,’ and ‘Rossyanka’ (hybrid).