My first introduction to the persimmon was as a teacher in South Korea. All of a sudden one day my local grocery store was full of gift boxes featuring what looked like hard orange tomatoes.
What could they be?
I asked my coworkers what was going on, and found out that it was persimmon season. The fruit is a popular gift during the national holiday, Chuseok, hence the elaborate gift wrapping.
The persimmon fruit is technically a berry, and grows on a small-ish tree. The shape and size differs from variety to variety and a persimmon can be round and squat, or more elongated and shaped like an acorn. The colour ranges from yellow to reddish-orange. It ripens late in the season and is ready for harvest starting in October. For that reason, the farthest north you can expect to have some success is zone 4.
The tree itself takes on a surreal quality once the fruit is ready to be harvested. Without leaves, it has a gnarly look, while simultaneously being covered in bright orange globes. There’s nothing else quite like it in our garden. Very Hallowe’en-y.
Persimmons grown in North America originate from two parts of the world: Diospyros kaki from Asia (China, Japan, and Korea) and the native Diospyros virginiana from roughly the southeast third of the US.
Asian persimmons are either sweet (e.g. fuyu) or astringent (e.g. hachiya). The sweet varieties can be eaten while still firm, whereas the astringent varieties (like the ones we have here in North America) have to become soft before eating is any fun. Don’t make the mistake of eating an astringent persimmon before it’s ripe—he unripe flesh leaves a chalky, fuzzy feel in the mouth. Depending on the variety, a persimmon may need to be nearly rotten (or bletted) to be tasty. Allowing the fruit to freeze will help bring out the best flavour. Placing an unripe persimmon in a paper bag with an apple or banana will also help.
The persimmon’s popularity is miniscule in Canada, compared to China, Korea, and Japan (which are also the three largest producers in the world). That said, no cold-hardy fruit will stay obscure forever!
Persimmon-related traditions run strong and deep in its native regions.
In North America, the name “persimmon” itself comes from the word for dried fruit in a now extinct Eastern Algonquian language, Powhatan. The Powhatan confederacy was made up of 32 tribes living in current day eastern Virginia who were the first Indigenous people to come in contact with English colonists. In less than 50 years nearly the entire population (including Pocahontas) had been killed by disease or violence, or displaced by colonial encroachment. Today, there are around 4,000 descendents of the Powhatan confederacy that have gained recognition from the state, and are working on the federal government.
There’s a famous Korean folk tale in which a dried persimmon ends up saving a family from a tiger. A Japanese folk tale features a persimmon tree as a catalyst for a deadly feud between a crab and a monkey.
In the Ozark Mountains of the US, people have used the persimmon seed to predict the severity of upcoming winters. Inside a cracked seed is an embryonic seedling (the cotyledon) that is either shaped like a spoon, signifying a lot of snow, a fork, signifying a mild winter, or a knife, signifying cold winds. The reliability of this method is up for debate, but it goes to show the power of the persimmon.
Every year for the past 73 years the town of Mitchell, Indiana hosts a persimmon festival complete with the crowning of Miss Persimmon, and a persimmon pudding bake-off. I haven’t been, but I’d love to go! Maybe for the 75th in 2022...
In my books, the persimmon wins for uniqueness. It does things a little differently, and that’s a benefit when it comes to fostering diversity in a garden, homestead, or food forest.