Persimmons are the edible yellow-orange to red-orange fruit of several species of trees. The name is derived from Powhatan, the Algonquin language: putchamin, pasiminan or pessimin.
Fall is the season for this generally tomato-shaped fruit that also grows in sizes ranging from an acorn to a pumpkin.
The fruit grows on trees in the genus Diospyros, a word that stems from the ancient Greek words Dios and pyros, meaning "divine fruit", or more literally, "Wheat of Zeus".
While the persimmon is believed to have originated in China, one variety of persimmon is native to North America. As a sub-tropical plant, it grows best in Georgia, North Carolina and California, though it is found from Connecticut to the Gulf of Mexico, stretching into the middle south and up into the Great Plains.
About 90 percent of persimmons in the marketplace are a variety called Hachiya. This version lends itself to a yellow-orange tint and looks like a longish tomato. The other commercially grown variety of persimmon is Fuyu, which is bright orange, shaped like a round tomato, and can be eaten like an apple. When eaten fresh, persimmons are often bitten whole like apple or cut into slices.
When Europeans first tried the persimmons they discovered on our shores, they found it bitter and astringent until local Native people explained that persimmons would not become palatable and sweet until they ripen well into October. To be ripe, this means almost mushy with a taste like sweet apricots. Their taste has also been compared with mango, guava and some even say a combination of apple and apricot.
Eaten fresh, dried, raw or cooked, the persimmon imparts a delicate, sweet flavor. They are delicious in jams and chutneys, but they can also be diced and mixed with pico de gallo fixings for an interesting salsa.
The best time to gather them, as with chestnuts, is when they fall from the tree. It doesn’t hurt to help them a bit by shaking the tree.
In 1540, a Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, said he had seen Indians along the Mississippi River eating a bread made of prunes. Actually, the persimmons had been dried and pounded into a dough of sorts.
In his classic field guide, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus”, Euell Gibbons calls it The Sugar Plum Tree. He declares the best thing about them is they are available long after other wild fruits are long gone and forgotten because they often ripen well into winter where he was able to find them on a snowy hike even in mid-January. He also raved about the pleasant flavor of a tea, full of vitamin C, made from the persimmon leaves that can be picked in summer and dried in a warm attic.
As a commercial fruit, they have never really caught on in this country except in areas where they grow profusely. When ripe, they are almost mushy, and it is hard for markets to handle. They are more widely available at farmer's markets. Many fruits and vegetables are often picked and shipped unripe to give a good shelf appearance and longer shelf life. This just doesn’t work well for persimmons. If you can get some ripe and eat right away, that is best, or use their pulp in a number of recipes and baked goods. Try this one as an unusual alternative to pumpkin or squash breads.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
4 persimmons, pureed into pulp
½ cup softened (not melted) butter
1 cup sugar (any, or what you use for substitute)
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
1 tablespoon water
2 cups flour (one can be whole wheat if preferred)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Cream the sugar and butter until fluffy, add vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well. Now add the persimmon pulp and water. Use a separate bowl to sift together the flour, salt and baking soda.
*At this point you might want to add ½ cup of ground walnuts, hazelnuts or other.
Mix batter well until smooth and pour into a greased loaf pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes. Let cool, turn out on a rack before cutting.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.