Virginius Winterus Predictus

To shovel, or not to shovel? Only the seeds can tell. 

October usually brings at least one day over 70 degrees, and that’s when my dog Pi and I swim across the foot of Pipeline Rapids in Richmond near the James River’s fall line for one last farewell-to-summer snorkel in the catfish pool. This requires rock hopping and threading a snarl of briars, spicebushes and river birches on a sandy splinter island in a portion of the river known as Devil’s Kitchen. Enshrouded in this mess is a bedraggled, flood-beaten persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) laden with fruit, a few ripened to deep salmon-coral, which I pocket for my annual winter forecast. 

At home, I split the fruit down the middle and remove the slimy seeds, then laboriously slice each rock hard butterbean-shaped fortuneteller in half. Inside the seed, the little white root or embryo resembles an eating utensil—knife, fork or spoon. According to Virginia lore, if it looks like a knife, a cold, icy winter is in store—cut by icy winds. A fork pattern portends a mild winter—maybe light, powdery snow, but a spoon predicts an abundance of snow—so get ready to shovel.

The persimmon is not the only local wild prophet. Most everyone has heard of the woolly bear or woolly worm, the fuzzy black and reddish-brown banded caterpillar stage of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). According to lore, the width of the reddish-brown stripe indicates the severity of the winter—narrow equals a milder winter, wide means a harsher one. 

The yellow woolly bear, larva of the Virginia tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica), is a lesser-known Virginia forecaster. It’s said that this monochromatic ocher-colored caterpillar appears light yellow if a mild winter is on the way; it will be all white if significant snow is in the offing. My proof is this: In October 2013, the seeds of my harvested persimmons revealed knives, and the winter of 2013-2014 brought the dreaded polar vortex. Last October, the seeds exposed all spoons; a snowfall 33 percent above the annual average officially converted me to a persimmon-seed believer. 

So, what will the 2015 persimmons say? Go see for yourself in mid-October. If you wait to harvest until the fruit is wrinkly and soft, it’s usually sweet, so after removing the seeds for the forecast, you can use the pulp to make jam, strudel or cookies. No matter the winter prognostication, a yummy autumnal treat will be your reward. 

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