The Perfectly Pleasing Persimmon

By Dan Nickrent
Plant Biology Department
Southern Illinois University Carbondale IL USA

persimmon fruits

When people hear the word persimmon, if they know about it at all, they usually think of the fruit you find in the produce department of the supermarket.  That species (Diospyros kaki), native to eastern Asia, has a plum-sized fruit that usually lacks much flavor by the time it gets to the US.  Can you believe that there is a much better substitute, possibly growing just outside your back door?

The American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is found from New York to Florida and then west to Texas, primarily east of the Mississippi river.  Our persimmon is a tree 40 to 100 feet tall (the record tree is from Wabash County Illinois at 135 ft.). When mature it has deeply furrowed bark that forms a checkered pattern.  The leaves are simple and alternate.  The species is dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female trees.  The flowers are urn-shaped, with 4 floral parts (sepals and petals). The male flowers have 16 stamens and the female flowers 8 sterile stamens plus the ovary. The fruit is a berry with four prominent sepals.  

The fruits of the persimmon are edible - but that statement must be qualified!  Before the fruits ripens, they are hard and their color is green to yellowish.  Although many books say the fruit is only edible after a frost, I have seen some of the fruits on the tree ripen before the first frost.  And often the fruits ripen at very different times on one tree.  There are many clues that tell you the fruit is ripe and ready to eat:
The last feature is the most important.  If your mouth puckers when sampling a fruit, it is not ripe!  The transformation from the unripe, astringent to the ripe, delicious sugary fruit is truely amazing - the two forms of persimmon fruits are as different as day and night.  So if someone told you they once tried persimmon and it was terrible, they probably sampled an unripe fruit.

Gathering Persimmons

As mentioned above, persimmons ripen at different times in different places and even differently on the same tree.  This year (2012) in Southern Illinois, we had ripe persimmons in late September to early October, at least four weeks before the first frost, but this could have been related to the drought we experienced the previous summer.  A sure sign that the persimmons are ripe is the presence of the fruits on the ground around the tree.  The deer in my yard are the first to notice this, so their presence there alerts me that persimmon season is upon us.

One can collect the persimmons from the ground, but for these I gather only clean, undamaged ones.  When ripe they are very soft, so often when these fall the impact causes them to split open (I don't use these).  The second way to collect persimmons is to put a large tarp under the tree and then give the tree a good shake (with a step ladder I can get up a bit higher in the tree to shake it). The persimmons that drop are ripe and ready to eat, and they stay clean when hitting the tarp.  And the third way is to use a ladder and pick the fruits directly from the branches.  But again, be aware that only fruits that pull away easily from the branch are ripe.

Extracting and Freezing the Pulp

Now that you have your buckets full of ripe persimmons, you should begin the process of extracting the pulp as quickly as possible.  If you leave these ripe fruits setting around for days, you will have lots of fruit flies and some nicely fermented mush.  I fill the sink with water and wash the outsides of the fruits. Eliminate any fruits that have dark spots and hard dark areas near the calyx.  Bear in mind that the fruits vary tremendously in size from tree to tree.  The larger fruits seem to have more pulp as a percentage of their total volume than the small fruits.  Remove the dry, dark calyx and place the fruits in a food mill.  These mills can be purchased online or at many different stores that sell kitchen appliances (mine cost ca. $30.00).  Before purchasing the mill, I extracted the pulp using a collander and a potato masher.  This works well, but it takes more "elbow grease!" Actually, the collander method results in a better quality pulp because it does not remove the seed coats. But if you use the food mill carefully, you can avoid grinding the seeds and get a lot of pulp quickly.  If properly ripe, the persimmon fruits should easily crush into a slimy mush (sounds terrible, but it's not!).  By filling my two quart food mill, I usually end up with two cups of pulp.

Persimmon fruits may have different amounts of water depending upon how long they have been hanging around on the tree.  For those that are drier, you may want to add a bit of water while processing them through the food mill.  I place the mill in a square pyrex casserole dish and use a plastic spatula to scrape the pulp off the bottom of the mill grate.  Measure out two cups of pulp and place this in a plastic freezer container.  I usually have lots of yogurt containers around, so I find these work well.  I label the containiner and place the pulp in my freezer.  The pulp keeps very well for up to a year in my chest type freezer.  Bear in mind that self-defrosting freezers, as are found associated with many refrigerators, will not work as well because they go through daily freeze/thaw cycles and food does not keep as long this way.

A Recipe for Persimmon Pudding

Cream the softened butter and sugar.  Add eggs and mix well.  Add spices, soda, persimmon pulp, mix.  Add milk and mix.  At this stage I find it useful to use my electric mixer.  It does a nice job of making the mixture nice and smooth.  Slowly add the flour, mixing as you go.  When the batter is smooth, pour into a greased 8 1/2 X 11 inch pyrex baking pan.  Bake in a slow oven (300 degrees F) for  1 hour 20 minutes, or until knife inserted into the middle of the pudding comes out clean.  Can be served warm or cold. When the pudding is warm, I like it with a little whipped cream, vanilla frozen yogurt or even just some milk.  Enjoy!

Diospyros Trivia

We have just one persimmon (Diospyros) in the eastern US.  But this is actually a large genus with over 550 species worldwide (photos of other Diospyros species on PhytoImages HERE).  The genus is especially speciose in Central America, Africa, Madagascar, and the Indo-Pacific region.  Here are some other uses of various species in the genus Diospyros (thanks to "The Plant Book" by Mabberley).

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