In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. American persimmons are North Carolina natives and grow wild
In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
American persimmons are North Carolina natives and grow wild in all 100 of our counties. But the determination of your relationship with this fall fruit being sweet or bitter is all in the timing: Eat the vivid-orange pulp before it’s ripe, and you’ll be hard-pressed to wipe the pucker off your face from the intense bitterness and chalky mouth-feel — a consequence of the fruit’s high-tannin content. But a perfectly ripe persimmon? It’s velvety soft and sweet, delicate and rich.
“We’re trying to figure out the gateway to people’s hearts with these incredible, adaptive, durable, easy-to-grow fruits,” says Bill Whipple, a persimmon grower and founder of the Buncombe County Fruit & Nut Club. “People are resistant because they were given bad persimmons when they were young, so that’s one of the most common relationships people have with persimmons believe it or not. I would say probably nine out of 10 people have that story. We try to heal traumas at my farmers market booth. Rebuilding trust between the human and fruit — I am the go-between.”
We asked Whipple and two other experts — Dr. Jeana Myers, a persimmon grower and Horticulture Extension Agent for Wake County, and Doug Elliot, a persimmon grower, naturalist, herbalist, and storyteller — to share their experiences with the first-frost fruit, plus tips and tricks for improving your own relations with persimmons, like how to avoid the “persimmon pucker.”
Persimmon grower and founder of Buncombe County Fruit & Nut Club
Persimmon grower and Horticulture Extension Agent for Wake County
Persimmon grower, naturalist, herbalist, and storyteller
Bill Whipple: It’s almost more like a novelty, and it also has a history to it: Old-timers always recollect about eating persimmons as kids, and usually nine times out of 10 it was some weird uncle that would give them under-ripe persimmons and watch the kids all pucker up. I don’t think I had a persimmon until my late 30s. I was a volunteer that revived edible parks in downtown Asheville and persimmons were always integrated in those plantings. It’s such a great, low-maintenance native tree. It has high production and is very popular.
Jeana Myers: All my life, I heard about native persimmons and how astringent they were, so I wasn’t expecting them to taste so good. I didn’t really grow to love persimmons until I had my own tree. Now I have three trees, but they’re different varieties. The one in the front yard (Asian persimmon/Fuyu) is the one that I really love.
Doug Elliott: I guess I’ve always been kind of interested in them. We had a persimmon tree in my backyard where I was raised in Maryland, and they would drop persimmons occasionally. We never ate a lot of them, but my dad showed me you could eat them, and we liked them.
Bill Whipple: It’s creamy and sweet — the wild ones are gonna have a lot of seeds in them, but even then, they’re soft and kind of a nice mouth experience. It’s almost like a creamy pudding with seeds.
Jeana Myers: They really just have a very mild but sweet, flavorful package.
Doug Elliott: They’re creamy and smooth, like apple butter or pudding.
Bill Whipple: You don’t need any chemicals to grow them, so it’s way healthier for the environment and healthier for us. You’re gonna want to find a good cultivar. I don’t generally like to give away cultivar names because I want people to try different things. I would recommend getting a cultivar whose heredity includes the Early Golden variety. If you’re going to plant a seedling that isn’t a cultivar, there’s a very small chance that you’re going to actually get a tree that produces fruit.
Jeana Myers: You should select the variety of persimmon tree that fits your space. Read through what the different varieties are and how big they get at maturity. Choose one that will fit the space that you have, so that you don’t have to fight it to be a size that it doesn’t want to be. I think persimmons are one of the top five options for disease and insect-resistant fruits in the home garden. I tell people that the few fruits you can grow in a home garden with no chemical sprays are persimmons, figs, blueberries, muscadine grapes, and maybe blackberries.
Doug Elliott: Probably the best way to do it is to graft an Asian persimmon onto a native stock — that way you get the strength of a native and a much bigger persimmon.
Bill Whipple: There’s gonna be some deer browsing early on, and there’ll be some buck rubbing as it gets a little older. After that, they’re pretty much on their own. If they get big and gangly, like in the forest, you just have to get whatever you can off the ground. If you’re growing in an orchard setting or yard, you can keep them in a really nice shape and down to whatever size your ladder is. It’s labor intensive — I have to go around and squeeze all the fruit every three days when I want to pick for optimum persimmon yield.
Jeana Myers: I have not experienced any real disease or insect problems, but squirrels like them. They will chop off the little stems that are holding the fruits and knock them to the ground. The trees also tend to have a process of self-aborting a bunch of the tiny fruits. They do this sometime in the summer and you look at it and think “ah, I’m not going to have any left.” But it’s just kind of a natural process of the tree shedding what it can’t support. You still end up with a lot of fruit on the tree, but it can be a little bit of a mess when they drop a bunch of them.
Doug Elliott: Possums, raccoons, and deer like them — they’re opportunists like we are. There’s an old country song that goes, “Possum up in a ’simmon tree, raccoon on the ground, raccoon says to possum, please shake them ’simmons down.”
Bill Whipple: There’s so much myth around that, like, “Oh, they’ve got to freeze,” and that’s just not true. Many of the cultivars used a persimmon called Early Golden in their breeding program, which is known for ripening before frost. The way you can tell is if the “little hat” peels off on top — that will tell you when it’s ripe. Because I sell them at farmers markets, I pick them when they’re still on the tree: I see if they’re kind of soft, and then I can just pop them off gently. I set them on a tray and every day I walk by and see if the hats will peel off. I put them in egg cartons under-ripe, and tell every person that I sell them to, “Don’t eat one of these unless you can peel the hat off.” Then, in a couple of days, the hat will peel off and they’ll enjoy a perfectly ripe persimmon.
Doug Elliott: The whole thing about a persimmon is if you pull them off the tree, they’re almost always not ripe yet, so you shake the tree gently and the ripe ones will fall. Persimmons ripen at different times. The old folklore is that you’ve got to wait for the frost, but we’ve been eating persimmons here for at least a couple of weeks and there hasn’t been any frost nearby for a long time.
Bill Whipple: The best way, I think, is to eat them raw. If a baker buys them, I recommend that they make a purée and spread it over something … they’re a beautiful translucent orange as a fresh purée. I would also experiment with some acid in there — lime would be really nice. Treat them as a temperate, exotic tropical fruit. They’re a great natural sweetener and they don’t overpower. If you’re doing some kind of pastry for the holidays, you put this purée on there and then something with acid to complement it, and you’ve got a really nice persimmon icing kind of thing.
Jeana Myers: They can be cooked, and they mix well with a savory dish; I cut up the ones that are really firm and sautée them with onions and garlic in a vegetable or meat dish. If they’re just slightly soft, I will cut them up and eat them fresh in my salads. In a nice green salad, they can replace tomatoes. If they’re very soft, I’ll probably make dessert with them like persimmon pudding. They can also be frozen, but they will be mushy when they thaw.
Doug Elliott: I only use ripe ones in baking. Recently, we made persimmon sorbet. We ran the persimmons through a food mill, got the pulp, and mixed it with whipped cream — it was delicious.