October 17, 2010

Fruit of the Gods: Persimmon

Today my eye caught something bright yellow-orange waving to me from the tall weeds in the meadow.  Everything out there looks tired and dry and done for the season, but there was a little beacon calling to me to notice.

It was the persimmon sapling I had planted four seasons ago.  It is a tiny little thing out in the meadow, never before seen above the level of the tall weeds.  And there it was, rising above the ragweed and spent goldenrod.  For the first time I could see it, and to celebrate its gangly adolescent growth, it was in full orange blaze, all excited about finally getting to be this tall.  Lookit me!

In 2007 my gardening / traveling companion Becky and I visited Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, in Kentucky.  It's outside Louisville, and I practiced all week to say it correctly; "Luhvull" or something like that.

Even though the area had been under a long severe drought, we had a great tour.  At the end, of course, we visited the gift shop and checked out the plant sale.  And there, in little one gallon pots, were two sprouts of American persimmon trees:
Diospyrus virginiana.  Dios = God, Pyrus = fruit.  Fruit of the Gods.  Oh my.

from MissouriPlants.com
Becky told me about eating persimmons as a child on her family's farm.  A persimmon fruit is incredibly mouth puckeringly tart, until it ripens and sweetens up.  And then it is incredibly mouth tantalizingly delicious.  Because it ripens so late, particularly here in the north, it is often assumed that it's the autumn frost that sweetens the persimmon, but really, it just needs to be ripe enough for the astringent tannins to dissipate, and that is very late in the season.

Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Colony offered a good description of unripe and ripe "pessamins" as the native Americans called them: "If it be not ripe it will drawe a man's mouth awrie with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricock."

I bought two saplings, and then had the problem of getting them home.  They were only one gallon plants in plastic pots, but I had flown to Kentucky to visit Becky and had to transport them home on a small commuter flight from Lexington to Hartford.

The best I could do was put the pots in a plastic shopping bag, wrap the ends of the bag around the spindly stems, and bring the bag with me as a carry on item.  It had to be stuffed under the seat in front of me, and although they were little trees, they didn't fit.  I got the pots wedged partly under the seat, but the trunks and leaves reached around my knees and flopped in my lap and reached over into my seatmate's lap too.  No one at the airline or on board raised an eyebrow as I flew home sitting in a little leafy forest.

They arrived home with me, a little bedraggled.  I planted them out in the meadow as part of my personal reforestation project to reclaim the scrabbly dirt hill that the bulldozers left when the builder was finished with our site.

I rarely saw them after that.  They were so tiny and the weeds were so tall.  One did not make it through the second winter.  The other one did, but it leafs out so late in the spring that I keep thinking it's gone too.  But it isn't.  It's growing.  And there, in the autumn sunshine it wanted me to notice.  It's the little blob of yellow in the dead center of this photo.  Not much, not yet. 

But it will be a tall tree some day and a stand out in the fall.  Already it is showing me its glorious fall color.  Diospyros is in the ebony tree family, and it will some day have thick blocky bark and strong dark wood.  Golf club heads are made of persimmon wood, although I don't intend to harvest mine for that purpose.

It will set fruit one day, and I can't wait to taste the fruit of the gods --- if I can be patient enough to wait until after the frosts of late fall.  I surely don't want to sample one too early and have my mouth go all awrie with much torment.

photo from "Bernheim Ablaze"
By the way, doesn't this program at Bernheim look interesting?  It's a photography workshop specializing in fall landscapes.  I'm too far away, I don't even own a digital SLR, and I can't go, but if anyone else does, I'd love to hear about it.

I wish I could attend, though.  There's no question I could do a better job showing you the glowing light of my little persimmon on this fall day if I had a little photography instruction. 


  1. I've never tasted a persimmon, but I've heard that they'll pucker your face for you if you take a bite out of unripened one lol. Neat little story, nice history behind them too :D

  2. How interesting - in my ignorance I thought of persimmons as limited to the South - hope they fruit for you in the near future!

  3. I have never had a persimmon. But now I want one! lol

    Beautiful fall colours!

  4. I think persimmons are good. There is folk lore about the seeds of the persimmon predicting the winter weather. If you open the seeds they show either a spoon or a fork. This tells what the weather is supposed to be. Unfortunately I can't remember which fortells a lot of snow or warm winter. Ha.. sorry about that. Just thought I would throw that in. You could google it if this captures your interest. I laughed at the sight of you sitting in a forest in the middle of a plane. I be everyone had a good story to tell about this flight.

  5. No one raised a brow on the airline because they are used to seeing me fly from Seattle to Anchorage with all manner of plants and garden art draped all around/under/over my seat.

    The gods enjoy Pepsi with their persimmons. In my family we call it "nectar of the gods."

    Christine in Alaska, no god food here

  6. I didn't know that Persimmons even got sweet! We have lots of wild Persimmons but they never get the fall color that yours has. Leaf spot must get the leaves before they can turn. That happens to our Serviceberries too.

    Congrats to your Persimmon for making it! Once they get going they're very persistant! I still cut sprouts down in the hay stall after 10 years.

  7. Kyna, you'll have to try a persimmon... but a ripe one!

    Cyndy and Garden Ms. S, persimmons do seem to be unknown to northerners, but they will grow here (to zone 4 at least, 3b might be pushing).

    Christine, I'm surprised airlines let anyone fly with all those leafy plants... but they do!

    Sweetbay, you always have wild and abundant versions in your woods of the trees I am so laboriously trying to grow! I wish I had your woodlands.

  8. Oh, Laurrie, what a wonderful post! I can just picture you sitting with the little persimmon trees on your flight home! No doubt you will still be telling the tale when the tree is stately and its fall foliage and fruit are noted by all the neighbors.

  9. Deborah, ha, you are right, I will be telling the story of the little persimmons flying home with me whenever I talk about this tree!


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