Fall is persimmon season! Persimmons may well be the Rodney Dangerfields of the fruit world. They are often left out of the fruit section of nursery catalogues or relegated to a back page, behind the popular fruits such as peaches, plums, apples and pears.
In the supermarket produce section, their place is off in a corner with the kumquats, plantains and other obscure fruits. “No respect, I gotta tell ya!”
I am here to defend this maligned fruit and hopefully rekindle some interest in its virtue as a valuable addition to our gardens, landscapes and fall cuisine. After all, their genus name, Diospyros, means “food of the gods.”
You may be familiar with our common American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, native from Florida to Texas and northward from Connecticut to Kansas. Sample these golf ball-sized wild fruits when they first turn orange, and you’ll learn firsthand what the word astringent means.
Those native persimmons are quite tasty when fully ripe but are also quite astringent due to high tannin content. This tannin breaks down over time and exposure to light and cold weather. Capt. John Smith experienced this “new” fruit as a visitor to the new world in the early 1600s and wrote “if it be not ripe it will drawe a man’s mouth awrie with much torment…”. Well said, John.
I used to gather the wild and ripe-to-the-point-of-mushy fruits as I traveled around the countryside, carrying them with me for days in a small box on the seat of the pickup for road trip snacking. But I must say that grabbing a soft and orange-red wild persimmon and trying to visually assess whether it is still astringent or not can be a type of culinary Russian roulette.
The fruit’s astringency breaks down over time, but exposure for ethylene gas can also speed the breakdown. Placing persimmons in a plastic bag with ripe bananas, tomatoes or apples, which give off ethylene naturally, for 3-4 days can speed the process. Old-timers say you can put them in the freezer for a night and then allow them to thaw out slowly (once or twice), and after about 24 hours most of the astringency will be removed.
The much larger Asian persimmons (Diopsyros kaki), also known as Oriental or Japanese persimmons, are the fruits you typically find in the supermarket. These also are sold for home or commercial fruit production.
Some of these oriental varieties are astringent types, but many are non-astringent, lacking pucker even when still firm. Being a self-proclaimed connoisseur of persimmons, I must say that the astringent types provide the best flavor if allowed to fully soften and ripen. They are like eating a bag of jelly, and their aromatic flavor is amazing.
Persimmons are easy to grow, requiring plenty of sunlight and good drainage. The trees grow slower than most other fruit species but can begin bearing at an early age. This is one fruit that has very few pest or disease problems and can easily be grown in most areas without the need for sprays.
Numerous grafted varieties are available and can do well in our area. The most common variety is Fuyu, but many others are worth searching for, including Eureka, Hachiya, Saijo, Tanenashi and Chocolate.
Fertilize trees in March and June with a product containing a 3-1-2 or similar ratio of nutrients at a rate of 1 cup per inch of trunk diameter, scattered evenly beneath the tree’s branch spread and watered in well.
Add mulch to the soil surface around each tree extending out to the outer branch spread for the first five years after planting. This reduces weed competition and helps maintain adequate soil moisture. Young trees are prone to dropping their small developing fruit, especially during droughty spells.
Persimmons ripen to a very soft consistency. The fruit is rich in wonderful aromas and is very sweet. I prefer to just eat them fresh, a not-so-tidy activity, and the riper/messier the better. Perhaps we need a national persimmon board who can take up the slogan, “Persimmons — the fruit you eat in the bathtub.”
Persimmons are superb in holiday baking. Persimmon pudding and persimmon breads are among my favorites. Toss in some black walnuts or Texas pecans to take your persimmon bread up a notch. In my opinion, persimmons are worthy of equal billing alongside pumpkins for Thanksgiving Day culinary fame.
As an added feature, persimmon trees provide good fall leaf color in shades of yellow, orange and red, a rarity in our region. Then after the leaves drop the orange-red fruits remain like “Thanksgiving ornaments” to decorate the landscape for several more weeks.
If you have a sunny spot in the landscape, consider adding a persimmon tree either this fall or winter season. If not find a neighbor with a fruitful tree and begin making plans to barter. If any readers have some family favorite recipes for persimmons, please email me so I can give them a try.
Robert “Skip” Richter is the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Horticulture Agent for Brazos County, 2619 Texas 21 W., Bryan, Texas 77803. For local gardening information and events, visit brazosmg.com. Gardening questions? Call Skip at 823-0129 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.