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American Persimmon: Cold Hardy “Fruit of the Gods”

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Welcome to the first official plant of the month post. Today we’re looking at American persimmon trees. I’ve selected the persimmon because it’s one of my favorite fruits (granted, I have about 20 favorite fruits!) and because they are one of the last to ripen—as late as November.

Persimmon is a fruit that I didn’t know about until my late twenties, when some showed up in my CSA (community-supported agriculture) basket when I was living in Tempe, Arizona. I was in love at first bite. The variety I received in my CSA basket was an Asian persimmon (Diospyros kaki).

But the species I’m focusing on today is the cold-hardy American persimmon tree, or common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). I’m specifically featuring American persimmons since I no longer live in balmy Arizona and American persimmon trees grow better in my Idaho climate. That said, Asian persimmons can grow and bear fruit down to zone 7 or possibly zone 6b. American persimmon trees, however, are hardy down to zone 4.

Persimmon: “Fruit of the Gods”

Persimmon belongs to the Ebenacea (ebony) family and the genus Diospyros, which loosely translates from Greek as “fruit of the gods.” 

This entomology isn’t surprising, considering the incredible flavor of persimmon fruits, which is something like mango or cantaloupe but with a sweet honey-like flavor and a hint of date.

American Persimmon

Botanical Name: Diospyros virginiana

Family: Ebenaceae (Ebony family)

USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-9

Bloom Time: May – June

Ripening Time: Late September – November

Pollination: Plant with a male to ensure a harvest.

American Persimmon

Native to the central and eastern United States, American persimmon is found wild in parts of the country and was a staple resource for Native Americans. Its fruits are smaller than Asian persimmons, at only about one to two inches in diameter.

American Persimmons are said to taste even better than Asian persimmons. When fully ripe, their flavor is described as something like caramel and tangerine, with a smooth, custard-like texture.

Persimmon Astringency

Persimmons fall into two categories, astringent and non-astringent. American persimmons are astringent, while Asian persimmons can be astringent or non-astringent. 

You can eat non-astringent varieties when the fruit is firm or soft and fully ripe. Astringent varieties, including American persimmon, are only good to eat when they’re soft and jelly-like at peak ripeness or even overripe. Otherwise, the strong astringency makes them unpalatable.

American Persimmon Pollination

American Persimmons are dioecious, meaning the male and female flowers occur on separate plants. Some female varieties will produce fruits without pollination, making them self-fertile, but planting a male will provide more abundant harvests.

American Persimmon Uses

American persimmon has many uses, from various ways to prepare and eat the fruit, to uses for the seeds and wood.

You can eat persimmon fruit:

  • fresh
  • dry it like prunes
  • freeze it
  • make jam
  • or even make molasses out of the pulp

Persimmons are excellent fruits for baking:

  • pie
  • bread
  • pudding
  • custard
  • cookies

Persimmon seeds are also useful:

  • pressed for oil
  • roasted and used as a coffee substitute.

Unripe fruits high in tannins are useful for:

  • tanning animal hides
  • dyeing textiles
  • medicinal purposes

Persimmon wood is useful for making:

  • driver golf club heads
  • pool cues
  • tool handles
  • weaving shuttles
  • musical instruments

Indigenous Uses of Persimmon

Native Americans, including the Cherokee, Comanche, Rappahannock, and Seminole Peoples, used persimmon for food, medicine, and tools.

Among other medicinal uses, the astringent fruit was used to treat mouth sores and hemorrhoids, and the bark was chewed to treat heartburn. The dense and durable wood was used to make billets or batons for flint knapping.

Ecosystem Services Provided by Persimmon Trees

Beyond the incredible fruit and valuable hardwood, American persimmon trees provide important ecosystem services.

American persimmon trees have high wildlife value, providing:

  • A winter food source for fruit-eating birds and mammals
  • A source of nectar for insects, including bees (persimmons are pollinated by native bees and honey bees)
  • Attracts pollinators
  • A host species for luna moth and royal walnut moth caterpillars

Harvesting American Persimmons

Persimmon fruits typically ripen around the first frost date. For the best flavor, leave the fruits on the tree until they easily come off or fall off independently. A common method of harvesting is to shake the tree and let the ripe fruits fall to the ground or a tarp. This can be done several times through the ripening season. 

Growing American Persimmon Trees

American Persimmon trees can get quite large, up to 80 feet tall, but typically top out between 15 and 30 feet. They do, however, require more space than a dwarf variety fruit tree, so plan accordingly. Either plant your persimmon tree with ample room to grow or plan on maintaining a smaller tree by regular pruning.

Consider growing a fruit tree guild with American persimmon as the key species, or, if you have enough space to work with, consider using American persimmon as your canopy layer in a forest garden.

Cautions for Growing Persimmon

Persimmon fruits are toxic to horses, so don’t grow them in fields shared with horses, and never feed them to horses.

Resources

University of Georgia Extension: Home Garden Persimmons

Edible Acres: American Persimmon

Maryland Grows: Introducing the king of fall fruits: persimmons!

United States Department of Agriculture: Diospyros virginiana L. – Common Persimmon


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