During the American Civil War, three separate infantries—the 73rd Illinois, 35th Ohio and 100th Indiana—each shared a nickname based on marked appreciation of a specific fruit. The term assigned to these groups of fighters was “Persimmon Regiment,” and the descriptor, history tells us, was earned when soldiers halted their forward march to harvest the gooey fruit. Whether it was persimmons’ scarcity in northern climates or some strange trick of geography we can’t really know, but war records confirm the regiments seemed spellbound by the orange berries to the point where, upon choosing a campsite, raiding a nearby persimmon grove was of more importance than other camp-making chores.
While a free-standing, native persimmon tree is still a foraging win, cultivation is probably a better choice for modern fruit enthusiasts not on a walking tour of the lower states. Luckily, the species is neither difficult to plant nor demanding to maintain, making persimmons excellent for growers with an eye for the unique.
Two Types of Persimmons
Persimmon trees have long been an important food source for both humans and animals, and in modern times, the tree is encountered in two overall varieties: Asian (Diospyros kaki) and native (Diospyros virginiana). Asian persimmons are often the preferred trees of nurseries and professional growers, as the varieties typically bear greater fruit yields, are smaller at maturity and self-pollinate. Native persimmons, however, are hardier and can survive all the way down to USDA plant hardiness zone 4, whereas imported trees struggle in areas colder than zone 7.
All varieties, however, are a lovely property addition, though the slimy fallen fruit can be troublesome on urban driveways and sidewalks. The persimmon’s bark is perhaps its most distinctive feature: Dark brown to almost black in color, the trunk appears checkered, like an alligator’s hide, with deep grooves and ridges. The alternating, 2- to 6-inch-long leaves are shiny and smooth, and the early-summer flowers range from green to creamy white.
Sweet or Sour?
Of course, as settlers and soldiers have long known, the tree’s most desirable trait is its fruit: inch-diameter orange berries that show up around September. Not just of interest to humans, wildlife species such as deer, wild turkey and foxes depend on persimmons as an important food source, and some hog farmers report they make an excellent feed supplement for pigs. A persimmon tree heavy with fruit is a truly sweet sight (persimmons boast a high glucose content), but eating one unripe is an experience not soon forgotten: astringent to the point of assaulting. I’ve heard unripened persimmonss described as “fuzzy,” “bitter” and “aaargh, horrible!” by visitors to the mature natives standing on my property.
Planting persimmons is an easy chore, though certain considerations must be made. If purchasing an Asian species—preferred by many for their large, flavorful fruits—make inquiries and perform research to determine which tree best meets your expectations. Hachiya persimmon trees bear large, acorn-shaped fruits that can only be eaten fully ripe without experiencing deeply unpleasant mouth conditions; the Fuyu, however, produces squat fruits perfectly sweet and delicious, fully suitable to eat fresh from the branch.
Persimmon Tree Care Tips
Basic measures aside, persimmon trees require very little of growers save one, key quality: patience. Persimmon trees can take up to five years to bear fruit, so planting one is more investment strategy than gratification
Asian persimmon trees prefer deep, well-drained soil and perform best in full sun, so site your planting area accordingly. Dig a hole big enough to accommodate the tree’s roots—wider than it is deep—and loosen soil along the edges so the roots will spread. While a 10-10-10 fertilizer can
be used, some experts prefer mulch over amendments to encourage adaptation to soil conditions. Prune limbs that cross or dangle, and cut for height control if you want to avoid climbing ladders during harvest time.
Native persimmon trees (the ones that set Civil War soldiers’ mouths watering) are capable of growth via propagation from seeds, cuttings,
suckers and grafts. While each of these methods call for in-depth research and experimentation, successful saplings (at least two—you’ll need a male and female for fruit) can be transplanted to an orchard or other growing site at one or two years old. The Asian varieties are certainly a more reliable choice, but if a good native specimen is available, cultivation may be worth consideration.
Regardless of variety, a ripe persimmon fruit is a valuable addition to any kitchen. Fruits generally ripen September to October, with astringent varieties only edible when the pulp is soft and mushy (freezing can eliminate astringency too), and care should be taken when harvesting to
preserve the cap. Ripe persimmons make delicious jam and jelly, pies and salad toppings. Some folks even make a coffee-like beverage from the seeds, a technique traceable back to—you guessed it—the American Civil War.