Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I grew up not really knowing what a persimmon was. We had plum, apple, and pear trees in our yard, but no one I knew had a persimmon tree. I first heard about persimmons my first year of graduate school, when Channel 3's Judy Fraser reported that she found lots of "spoons" in the persimmons, so be prepared for lots of snow in the coming winter. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, and at the time I was too shy to ask anyone.
I finally got to taste a persimmon when a Master Gardener brought one in to taste. It was far better than I ever imagined. The ancient Greeks called the persimmon Dios pyros, "the wheat of Zeus" or "the fruit of the Gods". Later this became the genus name of persimmon, Diospyros. After tasting a persimmon, I know the Greeks were right!
Although persimmons are usually known for their fruit, the wood is also useful, and among the hardest of North American trees. The persimmon is in the same family as the Ebony tree. While not as hard as ebony, the older wood does take on a dark color similar to ebony. Persimmon wood is used in golf club heads, pool cues, and shuttles used for weaving cloth. Traditional Korean and Japanese furniture has used the persimmon as well.
The persimmon seen most often in Illinois is the American Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana. The American Persimmon is native to the eastern U.S. and is often found growing wild in the landscape, often reaching heights of about sixty feet. They are dioecious, literally meaning "two houses", male trees and female trees. The female trees will bear fruit only when pollinated by the male tree.
There are many other species of persimmon, native to parts of the world such as Europe and Asia. Many are not edible. Most of the persimmon cultivars grown commercially were bred from Asian species. Generally, these commercial types can be found at the grocery store in about January. Persimmon fruits are somewhat round, and yellow-orange to orange-red in color.
There are two general groups of persimmons based on their fruit. Their fruit can be categorized as astringent or non-astringent. Non-astringent persimmons are typically eaten when they are ripe but still somewhat firm, delicious as is. Technically speaking, the astringent fruits are high in tannins. Practically speaking, eating an astringent fruit at the wrong time will leave your mouth feeling like it's been drained of every last drop of moisture, giving new meaning to the phrase "pucker power". It shouldn't come as a surprise that the word persimmon comes from the Algonquian Indians, meaning "dry fruit".
American Persimmons are in the "astringent fruits" category. They are only edible when extremely soft and ripe, after a series of light frosts. These light frosts are known as "bletting" and serve to break down the tannins, making the persimmon a delectable sweet treat.
The problem with waiting for this moment is that the local critters, such as raccoons and opossums are also waiting. If you manage to get a few for yourself, you may choose to eat them fresh, dried, canned, in jams, or various cooked recipes.
Probably the most famous way to prepare persimmons is in a cooked persimmon pudding. In some circles this dish has almost a cult following. Mitchell, Indiana even has a Persimmon Festival each fall, complete with a Persimmon Festival Queen. The central event though, is the persimmon pudding contest. Not only do the contestants have their own secret recipes, but many have their own "secret trees" that provide the key ingredient for their pudding.
An alternate use for persimmon fruit is forecasting winter weather. When Judy Fraser talked about "spoons" in her persimmons, she was talking about the seeds. Legend says that splitting persimmon seeds open will reveal the shape of a fork, knife, or spoon on the interior. If your fruits have mostly forks, it will be a winter with lots of light fluffy snow. Seeds containing knives predicts an extremely cold winter, with winds that seem to slice right through you. Seeing many spoons foretells of piles of heavy wet snow, so get ready to shovel! Some people swear by the predictive ability of persimmon seeds. Whether or not it really works, who knows. But it's harmless to sit around and try to make predictions, and fun too.
I haven't heard what the persimmons predict about the coming winter. But I welcome the opportunity to taste a few persimmons while investigating the matter!