October in Alabama is absolutely one of the best times of the entire year(and it is rapidly approaching). We not only get fall leaf color, cooler and less humid weather, in the home garden we get a swap from summer squash and cucumbers to typical fall crops such as turnips or collards or perhaps even cabbage, and there is even Halloween and trick or treating to boot. One additional thing that October usually brings and that is persimmons. I hardly ever let a fall season go by without at least one article on persimmons.
I got my first real lesson with persimmons at an early age. My grandfather that I always affectionately called “Pap” used to take me over to the persimmon trees that always grew next to the cotton fields where we were picking (yes, unfortunately I have experienced picking cotton by hand) where we would usually pick up a few persimmons along with a stray late season muscadine or two that the opossums, raccoons, and deer had graciously left us. It didn’t take long for me to become a persimmon “expert”. That is where the first lesson came in. This young self-proclaimed persimmon expert soon learned his first lesson in astringency! Astringency is a term that I affectionately refer to as the “pucker effect”. Common or “wild” persimmons are astringent…very astringent, which means they must ripen and soften (usually after first frost) before they become sweet enough to eat. I bit into one unripe persimmon and I literally thought my entire face was going to turn inside out! Like I said, persimmon lesson one … have patience.
A recent caller reminded me of a bit of persimmon folklore that I had all but forgotten. According to legend, persimmons can actually predict what type of winter that we are going to have. Take a few persimmon seed and cut them in half longitudinally or “long ways” if you prefer. You will notice the embryo of what will someday become a new persimmon tree. Typically (and with some degree of imagination) you can see one of three shapes… a spoon, a knife, or a fork! A spoon means that it will be a “heavy winter”. I got a clarification from one of my more Northern friends that a heavy winter means lots of snow. The spoon hence represents lots of shoveling. A knife shape represents a “cutting cold” winter that is so cold the wind “cuts like a knife”. Finally the fork represents a mild winter with only a dusting of sleet, snow, or ice. I’m not sure how accurate the persimmons actually are at predicting weather but they have to be at least almost as accurate as all the “weather guessers” as I call them on the nightly news.
Native persimmons are dioecious meaning that there are separate male and female trees, and both must be present in order to produce fruit. In addition to a wonderful edible fruit, persimmons can also be used in cooking such things as cookies, breads, and cakes. I recently found a recipe for persimmon pudding and even persimmon bread that I am anxious to try (the recipes are easy to google if you want to try them. Persimmons also have a very long and storied history. During civil war times when coffee and similar commodities were in very short supply, Confederate soldiers boiled persimmon seeds as a coffee substitute. As much as I like persimmons, I think I will stick to grocery store coffee for my caffeine fix, thank you. For those of you who are golfers, it is persimmon wood that was once the standard to make wooden golf club heads and even billiard cue sticks.
Common persimmon grows in a wide range of climates and soil conditions. They grow best in moist well drained areas but can also tolerate dry locations. It prefers to be in full sun; however, it withstands competition from other trees and shade very nicely. Persimmon has a very distinct and quite attractive bark that is dark gray to black in color and is broken into almost perfect square blocks. It is one of the most recognizable trees in the forest by the bark alone much less the fruit that seem to have been produced in abundance this year.
While most people are familiar with our native or common persimmon, most people are still unfamiliar with its relative the oriental persimmon. Oriental persimmons are relatively easy to grow; however, they are less cold tolerant than our native persimmon. Mine occasionally get bitten back by late frost and freeze events that we often get around here. As compared to the common persimmons I used to pick up off the ground with my grandfather when I was a kid, the oriental persimmons are huge in size.
They come in two basic but very distinct categories…astringent and non-astringent. Remember lesson one from above! The astringent varieties just like our native persimmons must ripen and soften before they are edible..remember larger persimmons mean larger pucker effect! There is another group of oriental persimmons, however, the non-astringent type. The non-astringent varieties can be eaten before they soften and are excellent whether eaten firm or allowed to soften. Some non-astringent varieties to try in our area include Fuyu and Jiro. If you prefer your persimmons on the softer side, storing them (once they are fully colored) in a loosely closed plastic bag with a banana or apple can speed the process along. Freezing them until they are solid and thawing them can remove some (but not all) of the astringency.
This certainly has been a long and stressful year for all of us dealing with pandemics and a host of other things that are going on, so I hope you are like me that all this craziness soon comes to an end and life gets back to as near normal as possible. As we continue to head into the upcoming fall season, I also hope that you (like me) are looking forward to a really great time of the year and take advantage of getting outside and enjoying some great fall color, maybe find and eat a couple persimmons or muscadines, or perhaps just enjoy the approaching cooler weather and lower humidity. Until then, stay safe and remember to keep washing those hands often (we also unfortunately have flu season approaching in addition to the COVID situation), continue to be diligent in maintaining social distancing, and even though none of us really like to keep wearing those masks when you need to be out in public (hopefully just a little while longer). Like I said none of us really like to; however, in my family’s case we have a daughter diagnosed with juvenile arthritis and medications suppress her immune system. There are many other kids and senior citizens alike whose immune systems are not as strong as most of ours, so please consider this my personal “thank you” on their behalf for helping to protect their health even at the expense of being a little uncomfortable and looking “not so cool” in those masks.