The persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is one of the true delicacies of the southeastern states. They grow as far north as southern Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and west to east Texas and Oklahoma. We are in the heart of persimmon country.
These unique fruits which are about an inch in diameter or slightly larger and have a cross-shaped calyx on the stem end. Trees are large with dark brown blocky bark. Once you find a persimmon tree you will be able to locate them from a distance just by the bark. The leaves usually have noticeable white veins.
In the fall when the fruits are ripe the leaves are often covered with a black powdery substance called sooty mold. It is unattractive and depresses the yield, but it doesn’t affect fruit quality. There is one other item to note, however. In your quest to find these tasty morsels you will notice that not all trees bear fruit. Persimmons are dioecous. This means that some trees are male and some are female.
Most people think persimmons have to be exposed to frost to be palatable, but this is not necessarily the case. They do have to be ripe, however. Anyone who has ever bit into a firm persimmon isn’t likely to forget the experience.
They can be ripened off the vine the same way green tomatoes can and aren’t edible until they are soft and somewhat wrinkled. Their color is usually some shade of orange and the sweet pulp inside is orange as well.
While packed full of seeds, wild ones have a more concentrated flavor than their cultivated Asian cousins. While the Asian types are more versatile and can be eaten while the flesh is firm, they don’t have as concentrated persimmon-like flavor the wild ones do.
I like the flat Asian persimmons fresh in a salad, but not so much in cooking. Cooking is the primary use for the wild types, and the flavor goes a long way. After gently washing your stash and blotting off any excess water with paper towels, crush them and sieve out the seeds. A colander works well if you have one. If you don’t a clean onion bag does the trick too.
Once you have your pulp you have plenty of options. Persimmon can be substituted for the mashed carrots in your carrot cake recipe. Use it in your Pumpkin or Zucchini bread recipes or cook it down with some added sugar and fruit pectin for a delicious jam.
My favorite use is persimmon pudding, and my favorite recipe is the one in Joy of Cooking. It’s outstanding and easy to make. This Persimmon concoction might remind you a little of bread pudding if you cook it thoroughly, but it is much richer. Cook it a little less and it is more like pumpkin or sweet potato pie filling. Other recipes are similar, and they’re all loaded with Vitamin A.
A walk in the woods in the fall can yield some unique and rewarding prizes. Persimmons are just one of the bounties our state has to offer. Anyone for wild muscadines or hickory nuts?
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City (firstname.lastname@example.org).