by Esther Lutz, East Central Illinois Master Naturalist
Bright sunshine, clear blue skies, shorter days, and crisp, moonlit nights signal that autumn has arrived. A pleasant drive over the weekend revealed a bounty of trees along the roadsides in shades of red, burnt orange, yellow, green, and brown, a true feast for the eyes. The weather could not have been more perfect, or the countryside more vibrant and beautiful.
My husband and I were visiting relatives in Altamont, and we soon found ourselves touring the country back roads of the Beecher City area where he and his three brothers grew up back in the 1940's, 50's and early 60's. Many of the old neighborhood farmsteads and community buildings from their growing up years are still standing where they always did; others are long gone. It was heartwarming to hear my husband and his brother reminisce about the old home place and their grandparents' old-fashioned general store as we drove by where the old buildings once stood. Pictures and memories are all that remain of the old house and general store, but what a thrill it would be to walk across those creaky old floors and gaze upon the candy displays, the old cold water pop machine, and the dry goods spread out over the rustic counters. The familiar grocery items lined up in neat rows on the aged wooden shelves, the fresh-cut meats in the display case, the lively banter of family, neighbors, and friends gathered 'round the old coal stove leisurely sharing old stories and neighborhood news - it would truly be a step back in time! There is just something about autumn that takes us back to a simpler way of life...
Meandering up and down the country roads, we eventually came to an area next to an open field where two unusual trees stood along a fence row. My husband and his brother said that those old trees had been there as far back as they can remember. Tall and stately and bare of leaves now, the trees revealed an abundant crop of deep orange fruits that clung to the overhanging branches and littered the ground below. Ahhh...persimmons! What an old-fashioned treat from autumns past! I couldn't get out of the van fast enough to see what rich treasures awaited in the earthy carpet of crunchy, fallen leaves beneath those trees!
Diospyros virginiana (American, or common persimmon) In late autumn, the persimmon trees of south-central Illinois and Indiana hang heavy with orange-red, luscious fruits - soft, squishy, and dead ripe for the picking. The persimmon is technically North America's largest native berry, and seems to grow best in a woodland setting where the tree may form a thicket or a colony from its roots. They are usually found in rich bottomland woods, roadsides, fields, fencerows, and clearings. The small greenish male and female flowers are produced on separate trees, so both are needed for fertile pollination. The fruit is borne on new wood, so most of them tend to cluster on the outer portions of the tree. The trees are tolerant of high temperatures, high humidity, and are fairly cold and drought tolerant once they are firmly established. These trees grow slowly, but can reach heights up to 60 feet or more. The grayish-brown bark of the trunk has a distinctive checkered pattern to it, and the leaves are a pretty yellow in autumn, though they do tend to fall early to reveal the ripening fruit.
The fruit of the persimmon tree is a little like a round, orange plum, with four broad, brown woody bracts at the top where it attaches to the twig via a short thick stem. The size may vary from 1 to 2 inches or more in diameter, depending on the tree and its locality. As the fruit ripens, it turns from green to orange with a purplish cast, and finally to a mellow orange-red. The persimmons are ripe when they are really mooshy and squishy and look a little pruned up; the cap should come off pretty easily. A good rule of thumb is if the fruit is still hanging high up on the tree and won't fall when you shake the tree branch, it isn't ready yet.
Persimmons are notorious for having a surprise awaiting anyone who bites into one too early in the ripening process. Firm, underripe fruits are very bitter and astringent, due to an abundance of tannins in the fruit. Many an unsuspecting city boy has been the butt of a country boy's joke when coaxed to bite into a not-quite-ripe persimmon. The lips, gums and tongue pucker up so tightly that the poor fellow cannot spit or speak from the bitterness! (My dad pulled this joke on my siblings and me when we were kids. I learned my lesson!) The effect is temporary, but does last a short while. Fortunately this astringent quality disappears in the fully ripened fruit, and the sweet, juicy flesh has a unique flavor unlike any other fruit or berry. We can eat them raw, and they were a favorite with the womenfolk of yesteryear as they whipped up delicious treats of persimmon pudding, pie, cookies, and jelly, and a syrup as thick as molasses. Some still make "simmon beer". Contrary to popular belief, it is not true that persimmons will not ripen until after a good hard frost, but many old-timers swear that that's when they ripen best and are the most "persimmony." (I tend to agree.)
Anyone who finds a good old persimmon tree with ripe persimmons will have to compete with the local wildlife for the fruit. Some of the species that are known to relish persimmons are raccoons, opossums, red and gray fox, coyote, skunks, various rodents, wild turkey, and many species of insects. It can really be a race to see who finds them first - you or the animals! White-tailed deer really beat a path to them, and the fruits are a vital food source for them in the winter months when food is scarce. But because the fruits don't all ripen at once, there is usually enough to go around so everyone can share.
Legend says that the persimmon seed is a good foreteller of the severity of winter weather. The seed of the fruit is fairly flat-sided, and when split into two pieces it will display one of three shapes: a "knife", a "fork", or a "spoon". The "knife" shape foretells a cold, icy, winter where the cold wind will "cut through you like a knife." The "fork" indicates a fair, mild winter with dry, dusty snow. And a "spoon" shape symbolizes a shovel for digging out from under lots of wet, heavy snow. This persimmon seed folklore is thought to have originated in the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri many moons ago. But it's fun even today to cut them open and see what kind of wisdom mother nature will pass along in her persimmon seeds!
Persimmons are a part of our rich American heritage, and each fall we are privileged to celebrate the unique flavor and folklore of this remarkable native tree. It is one of our favorite wild edible foods that the Native Americans used as a staple, and whose genus name Diospyros means "food of the gods." I look forward to returning to those trees in my husband's old stomping grounds to pick up more persimmons for delicious holiday recipes. Fortunately, they're only just beginning to ripen and fall. And as I slice open the seeds to forecast the winter weather in the next few weeks, I'll also look forward to sharing with family the taste of an old-time autumn treat that truly "tastes like heaven."