Soul-Warming Fruit

Hard to find and tricky to eat, the persimmon is deeply connected to rustic holiday food traditions. Head for fields and woodlands—and look up! 

(Photo by Tyler Darden)

My first encounter with the persimmon, one year ago, was a stumble—a lucky find. A small portion of our land had been cleared, and during a November morning walk, I noticed several lean, wild trees at our property’s edge. Smallish red-orange fruit clung to the bare branches, it’s color a wonderful contrast to the blue sky. But I had no idea what it was. A fruiting tree in the early winter was completely new to me.

I picked a few and brought them back to the house. After a bit of Internet sleuthing, my “a-ha” moment arrived: What I’d found was a persimmon, best known for its sweet, almost tropical taste and its annual appearance in winter holiday recipes. Excited, I hastily, greedily, took my first bite—and got my first lesson about the persimmon: When it looks ripe, it isn’t. That bitter, pucker-inducing nibble almost soured me on the fruit. Still, not one to hold a food grudge, the next day I tried again to learn the secrets to this low-profile fruit. After more research, I went out and collected a nice bunch of ready-to-eat persimmons and set about making my first batch of a beloved Southern dish, persimmon pudding. It was like a dense, moist gingerbread spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon. I was hooked from the first spoonful.

Why do persimmons, also known as sugarplums, still have a somewhat mysterious, old-school, wild-crafting reputation? One reason is that they are not grown in orchards and typically are not widely available in markets. Decades ago, the persimmon was a big part of seasonal celebrations in the Virginia countryside, but its popularity faded as people turned from foraging to corner markets for food. Beyond that, the persimmon is a winter treat, ready to enjoy at a time when most consumers aren’t thinking about fruit. In addition, unlike apples and oranges, the persimmon doesn’t transport well—and it has to be eaten soon after turning ripe.

So the persimmon can be hard to find and tricky to eat—but don’t let that dissuade you for searching it out. Collecting the fruit in the wild can be a wonderful experience (they are more abundant than you may realize), cultivating them in your own garden is a possibility, and creating holiday goodies with them in the kitchen is an unexpected delight.

To find your own supply of wild persimmons, start by traipsing through old farm fields, woodland edges and flood plains in late October through mid-December. That’s when I’ve had the best luck—and walking in the cool air of the late fall/early winter season is invigorating. Try scanning the horizons of fields for the silhouette of the hanging fruit. Or look to the ground for fallen fruit—and then find the trunk of the tree. Its bark should appear like ashy charcoal briquettes. I have to admit, I spent six years hiking past several humongous persimmon trees and never really noticed the fruit. These days, I do. Often. Maybe you will, too.

If you are not inclined to forage, you can grow your own. The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a native and does particularly well in Virginia. It adapts to different soil requirements, grows in full sun to part shade and develops a deep taproot that helps it survive our droughts. Pests are rarely a problem, so it gets another star for being easy to cultivate organically. A native species should be your first choice when you visit a nursery.

Many American persimmon cultivars have wonderful names. Some are frontier-inspired, such as ‘Abe Lincoln’ and ‘Daniel Boone,’ while others evoke ready-for-plucking hues—‘Mood Indigo’ and ‘Geneva Red.’ Edible Landscaping, a nursery in Afton, sells the ‘Meader,’ ‘Ruby’ and ‘Yates’ varieties—their stock is always a good barometer of what will do well in our state. Make sure to check with any nursery on whether the variety they sell is self-fertile or needs cross-pollination (requiring several trees).

Because American persimmons can grow up to 60 feet, Asian varieties, including ‘Hana Fuyu’ and ‘Ichi Ki Kei Jori,’ are better for the backyard gardener. They typically grow 8 to 10 feet. The Asian varieties at Edible Landscaping are grafted onto American persimmon rootstock, so they have the hardiness of the natives.

However you get hold of a persimmon, before you eat it, know how to recognize when it’s ripe. Jamestown colonist John Smith once wrote, “If it not be ripe, it will drawe a man’s mouth awrie with much torment but when it is ripe, it is delicious as an Apricocke.”

In fact, this fragile fruit is best when it feels tender and the skin is almost tissue-thin—the word “gooey” comes up over and over from seasoned gatherers. The sweetest have a purple-orange color—it’s probably the only time you’ll ever want your fruit to appear bruised. Some people say to wait until after the first frost to collect the fruit, but I think skin color and texture are more reliable indicators of ripeness. The yummiest persimmons are those that drop to the ground with a bit of jostling to the tree’s trunk.

While the persimmon may never be a consumer favorite, plenty of traditional persimmon recipes are around. The book Pigsfoot Jelly and Persimmon Beer (Ancient City Press, 1992), part of the Virginia Writers’ Project Foodways, documents rural, Depression-era food traditions in the 1930s and early 1940s and contains a recipe for persimmon beer. Some of the old-timers who were interviewed recall whole persimmons being put out on the dessert sideboard alongside nuts and sweets.

For me, cooking a traditional persimmon dish brings spare, yet cozy, homes and holiday celebrations to life. Friends have shared family pudding recipes, while others point me to fabulous books like Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus (Hood, 2005), with his recipe for Persimmon-Hickory Nut Bread and Persimmon-Nut Chiffon Pie. Virginia author Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s book Gather Ye Wild Things: A Forager’s Year (University of Virginia Press, 1980) includes recipes for sugarplum fruit cake and persimmon waffles, and she suggests substituting persimmon pulp for applesauce in cakes and breads.

The smell of persimmons and spices drifting through the home can warm the soul during dark winter evenings. And it reminds us of the fun we had collecting them in the crisp, early winter light, the frost-covered ground crunching underfoot. It’s a fruit for these shorter days of the year, when new garden life is least expected, and it connects us with the rich heritage of Virginia’s rustic past. That’s why the persimmon is special—and worth knowing.

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