Persimmon Pursuits

by Katherine Hale

The persimmons are ripe and the last harvest of the season here in central North Carolina is on. A brilliant shade of jack-o-lantern orange, the fruits dangle at the ends of the branches for observant passers-by to snag for a snack. As Halloween approaches, those glowing lanterns are suddenly everywhere—and the game is afoot.

Perhaps you’ve spied the cultivated Asian persimmons, large and solid in the hand, that command premium prices in local markets. Tasty as they are, I prefer the annual excitement of tracking down their wild cousin, the native American persimmon, which flourishes on field and forest edges in all one hundred counties in the state. The tiny globes are free for anyone with the time and patience to collect them—and no less delicious despite their small size.

Whatever their size or country of origin, all persimmons have belong to the genus Diospyros—“pear of the gods” in botanical Latin—in the ebony family, with dense hard wood like their tropical relatives. Male and female flowers form on separate plants, and by harvest time, the laden female trees stand in stark contrast to any bare-branched males nearby.  Older specimens boast a distinctive black bark, with dark, thick ridges that make them easy to pick out from the more common oaks and hickories. And with a few exceptions—mostly the result of human ingenuity and dedicated plant breeding—the fruits have a quirk that makes them particularly challenging to consume. 

“From hour to hour we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot, and thereby hangs the tale,” Shakespeare said. He was talking about the human condition, but his words apply just as easily to persimmons, and would-be harvesters must prepare themselves to walk that edge.

Fruit rarely tastes good before it’s ripe, but persimmons take that truism up to eleven. Eat an unripe persimmon and you’ll regret it instantly—they’re hard and astringent, with a fierce bitterness that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth at once, forcing you to sputter and spit frantically. But let the fruits shrink and soften until they are sagging, their skins tinted with dark, dusty cracks and they’ll burst inside your mouth, a sweet, smooth, creamy fruit pudding, worth all the trouble and effort it took to wait. A ripe persimmon deserves its folk name, “sugar-plum”; an unripe one is an acorn in all but name. 

It’s tradition to wait until after a few hard frosts to begin harvesting wild persimmons, as repeated freezes and thaws help break down the fruits. But in recent years, good, hard frosts are hard to come by, striking later and later in November and early December. If I wait too long, the trees may be bare by the time I get to the party. In place of the calendar, the best determination is whether the fruit easily comes away from its four-pointed cap that rests like a beret on top—if it slips off without a struggle, it’s ready to go. And a few days in the refrigerator can do wonders for any unripe fruits that sneak in with the a pre-frost harvest.

Regardless of the shifting climate, some things never change. First, I check the ground underneath each tree to see if any ripe fruit has already fallen, so I don’t accidentally smash it in the paroxysms to follow. Then I take a large stick or bamboo pole and lightly jostle the branches too high up to reach by hand—too hard and the branch will break, too soft and nothing happens. Get it right, and they come down with a satisfying thump onto the ground below for me to harvest at leisure. This ritual is so ingrained in local traditions that an old Southern folk song has a raccoon urging a possum in a persimmon tree to “shake those ‘simmons down” so they can feast, too.

But raccoons and possums don’t have a monopoly. Foxes, bears, deer and other mammals happily chow down on windfall fruits, swallowing them whole and excreting the seeds to germinate far from their parents, a healthy dose of fertilizer attached. These critters eat so many wild persimmons in the fall that local ecologists in search of wild persimmon seeds for restoration projects,  prefer to harvest seeds from wildlife scat rather than process the fruits themselves.

Persimmon harvesting looks odd to the uninitiated, but everyone understands as soon as I show them the fruits. Sometimes the onlookers are even bold enough to try them when I offer. It only takes one taste before they’re shaking those ’simmons down with me—and a new persimmon hunter is born.

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