American Persimmon

(Diospyros virginiana)

Unripe persimmon fruit in mid September

Description

American Persimmon is a deciduous fruit tree that can grow up to 70 feet tall. The leaves are 5-15 cm in length, oval, and alternate, green in the spring and summer but turning yellow in the fall. The bark is dark brown with deep fissures, giving it a scaly appearance. Flowers are a light cream color and are usually dioecious (either male or female only), but occasionally a tree will produce a “perfect” flower with both male and female parts. In general, a tree will produce mostly male or female flowers, but this can change from year to year. Many varieties of persimmon are self-fruitful, and some can even produce fertile seed in the absence of other trees, but multiple trees are desired to provide maximum genetic diversity. The fruit is a somewhat gelatinous berry, pale green to yellow and hard when unripe, turning golden orange to pink and very gooey when ripe.

Unripe persimmon fruit hanging on the tree in mid September

The bark of an older persimmon. Note that not all trees look the same; the depth and distribution of fissures is a function of the trees, age, location, and genetics.

Cultivation Tips

Persimmons will grow in most soils as long as they are not too salty, but prefer good drainage. Once established, persimmon trees are extremely hardy. It can take anywhere from 3 to 10 years from germination for the trees to produce fruit, but they will continue to produce abundantly for nearly a century thereafter; a true champion in terms of food security. Flowers appear in late spring with the fruit ripening in the fall, and sometimes hanging onto the tree well into the winter.

A young seedling persimmon in the fall of its first year.

American persimmon can be grown fairly easily from seed. To do so, collect plump seeds from ripe fruit in the fall. They will be encased in a fleshy pouch, so lightly scratch the flat side of the seed with your nail to rip the pouch and remove the seed, then rinse thoroughly to wash away any remaining flesh. Persimmon needs to be cold stratified before they will germinate, so place the clean seeds in a folded paper towel and spray with water until damp, then place the whole thing in a plastic bag in the fridge for 2-3 months. Be sure to label the bag with the name, date, and the source of the seeds. After 2-3 months, seeds can be removed and placed in a tall container with a light soil in a warm, sunny window or greenhouse. Seeds should germinate after about a month, so keep the soil moist but not soaking and remember to be patient. Plants should be transplanted to their final location no later then the early autumn of their first growing season. Alternately, seeds can be direct sown in their final location after being collected from the fruit. Cultivar persimmon trees are commonly cloned from hardwood cuttings. This preserves the genetic identity of the bred characteristics but reduces genetic diversity.

Persimmon seeds on paper towel ready for stratification.

Uses

The ripe fruit of the American persimmon is a gooey delight, very high in vitamin C, tasting sweet and somewhat of caramel. They can be eaten raw, dried, or cooked into a variety of dishes and pastries. The fruit can also be used to make a sort of molasses or jam. The unripe fruit, however, are extremely astringent and very unpleasant to eat, but such astringency may have medicinal applications. The leaves have traditionally been dried and used as a tea, and the seeds can be roasted and eaten or brewed into a coffee-like beverage. The wood of the persimmon tree is very dense and high-quality. Because the fruit tend to hang onto the tree into winter, it is an important food source for many types of wildlife. Due to its large stature, it can be used to cast shade on other areas of the garden for mushroom production, or used on the north side as a sun-trap to regulate microclimate.

Friends

Mushrooms like stropharia and trametes and shade plants like hostas and ferns grow well beneath the persimmon canopy.