The persimmon is an ancient and venerable fruit whose scientific name, Diospyros, is loosely translated to “food of the gods.” Indeed, few fruits are sweeter to eat when ripe — or more dreadful to eat when unripe. The persimmon can be a pleasing yellow or orange-red color and still taste bitter and astringent. For its medicinal properties, these qualities may be valuable (with special consideration to the tannins found in persimmon skin). In culinary uses, however, it’s anything but! So it’s important to remember that until the entire persimmon has softened to a jelly-like texture, it’s not ripe — no matter the fruit’s deceivingly appealing exterior. Once soft, however, it becomes as sweet as honey with a luscious gum-droppy quality and the subtlest hint of apricot flavor, as divine-tasting as its name indicates.
Persimmon harvest season is late in the year, during November and December. There are both Asian and American species of Diospyros, the main difference between them being the durability of the fruit during transport. The Asian persimmon cultivars surpass the American cultivars on this point, and thus are more widely available in commerce.
Natural Candy With Asian Persimmon
Diospyros kaki, the Asian persimmon, has been in commercial cultivation for thousands of years. It originated in China and eventually spread to Japan, Korea, and throughout all of Southeast Asia. Marco Polo encountered it during his travels in the 13th century. Six hundred years later, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy introduced it to America from Japan. The large, long-lived trees can produce an average of 400 pounds of fruit per tree. There are more than 2,000 cultivars. Asian cultivars are usually self-fruitful. The plants are male and female, but they can also produce bisexual flowers, therefore pollination generally isn’t a problem.
In Japan, prior to the introduction of cane sugar, persimmons were used as a food sweetener. Referred to in Japan as hoshigaki, dried persimmons are enjoyed as a dessert fruit. It’s said that drying removes the bitter taste and that the cultivar ‘Hachiya’ is the best one to dry. To produce hoshigaki, the fruit needs to be picked from the tree while still firm, peeled, and allowed to sun-dry for several weeks (pictured right). Some skin is left at the top and at the bottom of the fruit. During the drying process, the fruits are lightly “massaged” weekly to encourage the inner juices to seep out and dry, resulting in a fine sugar dust on the surface.
Asian persimmons tend to cling to the tree even after they are ripe, and so they must be picked individually. A ripe persimmon is so soft that it cannot be picked or tossed into baskets without causing damage to the fruit. The fruits are therefore picked slightly “green,” as in unripe. A persimmon picked while green in color will probably never ripen. In most cultivars, the fruit is ready to be picked when it’s bright-orange, although some cultivars have yellow fruits. It’s still not ripe, but at least it’s no longer green! You pick it while still firm, and then you wait.
There are many tricks to get a persimmon to ripen off the tree. Time seems to always work, unless the fruit was picked too early. To speed up the process, the Japanese historically stored the fruit in sake casks, where the alcoholic vapors encouraged swifter ripening.
A more modern technique is to spray the fruit with whiskey and store it in plastic bags for several weeks. You can also try storing persimmons in paper bags with an overly ripe apple (the ethylene gas method).
Asian persimmon trees are somewhat cold-tolerant and can grow in Zones 7 through 10. The trees are hardy even to 0 degrees Fahrenheit if they have gone dormant for winter, but extreme temperatures can kill them. The following cultivars of Asian persimmon are said to be especially cold-hardy: ‘Eureka,’ ‘Giambo,’ ‘Great Wall,’ ‘Peiping,’ and ‘Saijo.’
Delicate American Persimmons
The American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, grows from Connecticut to Florida and as far west as Kansas. Although widely known in American folk culture, the American persimmon is generally not available in commerce; the fruit is so sensitive, it doesn’t travel or store well. Native Americans sieved the seeds and flower pieces out of the pulp, then dried it into finger-shaped loaves which could be added to flavor gruel, grits, cornbread, and puddings. Persimmon was also an important sweetener when maple sugar was not available. You can sometimes find dried fruit pieces or persimmon jam in stores, but only the Asian cultivars are available as fresh fruit. References to persimmon beer go back to the early 1700s; in one recipe, the persimmon pulp is paired with a cornmeal mash and honey locust pods, then fermented. Recently, one of these early recipes was recreated, and persimmon beer is marketed commercially.
American and Asian persimmons are no different in flavor, but there are differences in size, the sensitivity of the fruit, and cultural practices associated with it. The fruits of D. virginiana are smaller than the Asian cultivars, about the size of a large marble, and there are no non-astringent cultivars. They are “dioecious,” that is to say each individual plant is either male or female. This can lead to pollination problems that aren’t encountered with the Asian persimmon. Further, American persimmon trees from the southern part of their geographic range won’t pollinate those from the north.
While the Asian fruits must be picked from the tree, the fruits of American cultivars tend to drop by themselves. The trees are 50 to 75 feet tall, and even young trees can produce 50 to 100 pounds of fruit per season. That’s quite a distance to fall for a very delicate fruit, so much of the harvest ends up being ruined. The American persimmons are fine to cook with, but difficult to market as fresh fruit. It helps if you spread a sheet or tarpaulin on the ground to keep them out of the dirt.
I purchased a dozen seedlings, so as to be sure to get both males and females, but only four of them survived, and three of those have turned out to be male. The female is now too tall and robust for me to shake down any of the harvest, so I must patrol beneath the tree by day to beat the animals to the fruit. Diseases and insect pests do not pose much of a problem.
Persimmon trees prefer sandy soils and full sun. They will tolerate the dappled shade of an open forest, but they don’t tolerate wet feet. The deep taproots make it difficult to transplant specimens of any great size. Give your trees 10 to 15 feet of room from all sides.
‘Early Golden’ is a cultivated variety of American persimmon selected for its yellowish fruit. ‘Wabash’ was selected for its red fall foliage. The ‘Meader’ persimmon is the one to go for if you have limited space; it’s the only American persimmon to be self-fruitful. It accomplishes this by the occasional production of male flowers, which can fertilize the females on the same persimmon plant.
The cultivars ‘Morris Burton,’ ‘John Rick,’ and ‘Lena’ are known to be a few of the best cultivars for cooking. These are also the best to freeze on the tree. Most other American persimmons will tend to drop off the tree around ripening time.
Generally, persimmon leaves turn yellow in autumn. The flowers appear in June but are not particularly noticeable. Some cultivars don’t drop their fruit so readily, and you can let the harvest freeze on the tree for some interesting winter “popsicles.” Good luck getting them down! At least they won’t smash easily if frozen solid.
Find Out More with Persimmons Recipes:
Jay T. Stratton is a retired teacher and linguist as well as an amateur botanist and farmer who lives in Westfield and Rochester, New York.
Excerpted with permission from Pomona’s Lost Children: A Book of Uncommon Antique Fruits by Jay T. Stratton, published by Chautauqua Gorge Press, 2017.