American persimmons are a native tree that can be found growing wild in all 100 counties in North Carolina. It’s native to the East Coast, from Florida to New York, and westward to Kansas and Texas.
It’s an opportunistic tree, appearing along fences and hedgerows throughout the South. A part of the Ebony family, the persimmon has very hard, dense wood which was once prized for shuttles and golf clubs. Early settlers and native Americans made use of its fruits, which ripen in the fall, for puddings and other sweetmeats. Native Americans commonly dried persimmon pulp into loaves for winter consumption.
For those in the know, the fruits are still highly prized today. Persimmon fruits, which must be gathered from the ground when ripe, are very sweet and have a spicy rich flavor. They should never be picked from the tree, as the burnt orange fruits are full of tannins that make them very astringent until fully ripe. Once ripe, they will drop to the ground. Not only do humans find the fruit quite tasty, but persimmons are loved by many wildlife creatures, including deer, fox, opossum, and raccoon. Persimmon trees are perfect when planted in a wildlife garden.
This deciduous tree – which can grow up to 70 foot, but is much more likely seen between 30 and 40 foot – has leaves that turn a pretty golden yellow or purplish red before dropping. The trees can be either male or female. Male trees generally do not produce fruit, but produce the necessary pollen needed for female trees to fruit. Persimmon blossoms, which are small and whitish-yellow, are not very showy, but are highly sought after by bees. A tree in full bloom will be humming with bee activity.
Persimmon grows and fruits the best in full sun, but will also grow in partly shaded areas. The trees have attractive bluish green leaves during the summer and the bark, which has scaly squared blocks that resemble an alligator’s hide, is another attractive feature. Many varieties have been selected for fruit quality. Most of the selections have been found growing in the wild. ‘Early golden’ was selected in the late 1800s and has been grown and propagated ever since. It still ranks as one of the best for flavor. Other varieties that are quite good are ‘yates,’ ‘ruby,’ and ‘dollywood.’ Most of the named varieties that are grafted will produce fruit without a male tree nearby, though this is not always the case.
Persimmons are not too fussy about growing conditions and are very adaptable to different soil conditions. They are very drought tolerant once established and there are very few insect or disease problems. Persimmon is one of the best native trees that could be used in many landscape situations. There are even select male varieties such as ‘loverboy’ or ‘william,’ for those who like the way they look, but don’t want the fruit.
Derick Morris is a horticulture technician at the Forsyth County Cooperative Extension Center.