Eric’s Pet Plant: Persimmon
This post is the debut of a new regular feature: Eric’s Pet Plants, written and photographed by my friend Eric Larson, manager of Marsh Botanic Garden at Yale University. This week, Eric extolls the persimmon, describing the differences between species and pointing out the tree’s many merits: It’s small, it’s not fussy about soils, it doesn’t require a lot of spraying — and the fruit it produces is delicious (if you know the freezing trick).
Persimmon (Diospyros species)
Persimmon is one of those very misunderstood edible items, like Brussells Sprouts. If you have ever partaken of a Persimmon fruit when it wasn’t ‘dead ripe,’ then your impression will be one of astringency, sourness even discomfort. One of the tricks that I learned from my beloved sister and her hsuband is to place the persimmon in the freezer overnight. After taking it out and thawing it, all astringency is removed and the true sweetness of the fruit will remind us of why the Greeks considered it the ‘fruit of the gods,’
In fact, the genus name is Greek: dios of Zeus (later Jove) and pyros for grain,alluding to the edible fruits. The common name actually comes from the Powhatan (an Algonquian language) word for the fruit: depending on the written translation putchamin, pasiminan or pessamin. The family is Ebenaceae, the Ebony family which includes five hundred species in two genera, Diospyros and Euclea, the genus for Ebony trees.
Diospyros virginiana is an American native persimmon, which one would guess if the Algonquin had a word for it. But persimmons are distributed world wide. The Far Eastern species provide the greatest reliability of ripeness and taste, and have been selected and perhaps hybridized for countless generations. The most widely cultivated species, D. kaki, is called kaki in Japan, shiziz in Chinese. China, Korea and Japan make up the largest part of the worldwide production of persimmon.
Two basic types of Persimmon fruit: astringent and non-astringent.
There are varieites of almost every species that fall into each category. I’m not sure why this should be in an evolutionary sense. Perhaps something to do with offspring dispersal. Perhaps, like humans, there are astringent sourpusses and then happy-go-lucky folks. As I said earlier, freezing releases astringency, breaking down the cell walls and allowing the tannin to be solubalized into the sugar solutions. Non-astringent fruit can be eaten when firm, without freezing, and therefore are considered a delicacy. There are other ways to achieve the same result as freezing, including using alcohol and carbon dioxide in what is called a ‘bletting’ process. My advice is: go ahead and freeze the fruit.
Another historical/literary note: the species native to southeastern Europe and western Asia, D. lotus, is referred to in several languages as ‘date-plum,’ because its taste and texture are reminiscent of both of those fruits. This species is thought by some to be the fruit referred to as ‘the lotus’ in the Odyssey: it was so exquisite in flavor and nutrition that it made those who ate it forget about returning home, wanting to stay and eat lotus with the lotus-eaters.
Nutritionally, Persimmons are high in vitamin C (the American native is the highest in this regard), and other nutrients, but also have tannins in the form of catechin and gallocatechin, and anti-tumor compountds betulinic acid and shibuol, the latter which may cause some intestinal discomfort. As a matter of fact, my tummy is feeling a bit ‘off’ right now after having eaten two small ones. No real problem, just a slight ‘eh.’ It is said that they should not be eaten with crab-meat nor eaten on an empty stomach. Well there goes my favorite breakfast, crab and persimmon omelette.
The trees themselves are small, depending on the species. They grow from twenty to forty feet depending on where they are located. They will grow in light shade to full sun, with full sun best for flowering and fruit production. The American species or those crosses that have some of that parentage are the most cold-hardy for us. The kaki and other types are more tender. They leaf out very late in spring, making one think that the winter might have got them. Be patient though. They flower well after leafing out, which makes them a good candidate for those areas with late spring frosts. The fruit doesn’t form until very late, and on the American species they aren’t ripe until after the leaves drop in the fall.
The fall color is a nice yellow, sometimes orange. They are very adaptable as to soils, tolerating flooding conditions or droughty sandy soils. I would advise you to look into persimmons as an alternative to the fruits that need so much spraying that are subject to disease and insect problems. They are available through mail order and sometimes in the better nurseries.
Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the author. Yale University and Marsh Botanical Garden and Leslie Land are not responsible for the inane and sometimes off the chart craziness of this publication.