The other fruit of the gods: American persimmons

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American persimmons… not quite ripe yet

Here in Alabama, it’s time to go foraging for the other persimmon, the native American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana.  “Diospyros” means fruit of the gods.  I didn’t make that up.)  It’s a tall, usually slender, tree that likes to grow along forest edges and in hedgerows.  It grows throughout the southeast, into the northeastern US and through much of the midwest, plus even in Utah and California.  If you are a novice forager, this is one fruit you can go after with a high level of confidence.  While you always want to be careful with identification when foraging, the fruit has no lookalikes in it’s native range.  If it’s bright orange, about 1″ round and has a four prong “cap” on top, it’s a persimmon.

Some trees will drop their fruit, on others they will hang on the tree until someone, or something, comes to eat them.  When the leaves fall, the orange fruit start to stand out like beacons, and you won’t be the only one attracted.  Wildlife love persimmons.  A tree that has fruit that hangs on and has plenty of low branches is a real winner: mark the spot in your head and come back every year.  If you collect off the ground, you will end up fighting for the fruit from the ants and they will often split open when they fall.

Unlike the non-astringent persimmon variety I grow, native American persimmons can pack a lot of pucker power if eaten too soon.  You must eat them dead ripe.  Preferably getting a little squishy.  You don’t need to wait until frost, although in some regions they won’t be ready until there have been several hard frosts.  You remember from Saturday morning cartoons when a character would accidentally eat alum and their lips would shrivel shut?  That’s what you will feel like if an unripe persimmon hits your tongue.  If they are ripe, they are intensely sweet, much like a date.  They are not as creamy in texture and flavor as their Asian cousins, but I think the flavor is better, and the fruit is higher in vitamins and minerals and contains the digestive enzymes papain and bromelaine.

As you can tell from the above picture, native persimmons are not beauty queens even when they aren’t getting to the ripe and squishy stage.  And unlike the cultivated Asian varieties, they contain seeds.  Larger fruit has a better pulp to seed ratio. Standing under the tree spitting out seeds is okay for a snack, but the best bet is to take your bags and buckets home, wash well, cook until soft and make a puree using a ricer or food mill  The remaining pulp can be dehydrated for intensely sweet snacks or used in recipes anywhere banana or applesauce can be used; use a 1:1 replacement ratio.

Get out and enjoy some crisp fall weather, and bring home some tasty fruit while you are out there.

(By Nicole Castle)


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