Orchard Trees - Persimmons
( Originally Published 1927 )
The persimmon tree of the Southern woods belongs to the ebony family, which contains some important fruit and lumber trees, chiefly confined to the genus diospyros, which has two representatives among the trees of North America. Doubtless a climate of longer summers would enable our persimmon trees to produce wood as hard as the ebony of commerce, whose black heart-wood and thick belt of soft yellow sap-wood are the products of five different tropical species of the genus—two from India, one from Africa, one from Malaysia and one from Mauritius. The beautiful, variegated wood called coromandel is produced by a species of ebony that grows in Ceylon.
Fossil remains of persimmon trees are found in the miocene rocks of Greenland and Alaska, and in the later cretaceous beds uncovered in Nebraska. These prove that diospyros once had a much wider range than now, ex-tending through temperate to arctic regions, whereas now our two persimmons and the Chinese and Japanese species, are the only representatives outside the tropics.
Diospysos Virginiana, Linn.
The persimmon will never be forgotten by the Northerner who chances to visit his Virginia cousins in the early autumn. Strolling through the woods he notes among other unfamiliar trees a tall shaft covered with black bark, deeply checked into squarish plates. The handsome round head, held well aloft, bears a shock of angular twigs and among the glossy, orange-red leaves hang fruits the size and shape of his Northern crabapples. The rich orange-red makes it extremely attractive, and the enthusiasm with which the entire population regards the approaching persimmon harvest focuses his interest likewise upon this unknown Southern fruit. He is eager to taste it without delay, and usually there is no one to object. Forthwith he climbs the tree, or beats a branch with a long pole until a good specimen is obtained. Its thin skin covers the mellow flesh—but the first bite is not followed by a second. The fruit is so puckery that it almost strangles one.
But after the frosts and well on into the winter the persimmons grow more sweet, juicy, and delicious, and lose all their bitterness and astringency. To find a few of these sugary morsels in the depths of the woods at the end of a long day's hunting is a reward that offsets all disappointments of an empty bag. No fruit could be more utterly satisfying to a dry-mouthed, leg-weary, hungry boy.
The opossum is the chief competitor of the local negro in harvesting the persimmon crop. Individual trees differ in the excellence of their fruit. These special trees are "spotted" months before the crop is fit to eat. It would seem as if the opossums camp under the best persimmon trees and take an unfair advantage, because they are nocturnal beasts and have nothing to do but watch and wait. One thing solaces the negro, when he sees the harvest diminish through the unusual industry and appetite of his bright-eyed, rat-tailed rival. He knows what brush-pile or hollow tree shelters the opossom, while he sleeps by day. Every persimmon the opossom steals helps to make him fat and tender for the darkey's Thanksgiving feast, so it is only a question of patience and strategy to recoup his losses by feasting on his fat 'possum neighbor, and to boast to the friends who join him at the feast, of the contest of wits at which he came off victorious.
In summer time a persimmon tree is handsome in its oval pointed leaves, often six inches long, with pale linings. The flowers that appear in axillary clusters on the sterile trees are small, yellowish green and inconspicuous. On the fertile trees the flowers are solitary and axillary. The fruit is technically a berry, containing one to eight seeds.
The following first impressions of persimmons in Virginia woods are from the pen of a traveler in the early part of the seventeenth century, whom Pocahontas might have introduced to a fruit well known to the Indians :
They have a plumb which they call pessemmins, like to a medler, in England, but of a deeper tawnie cullour; they grow on a most high tree. When they are not fully ripe, they are harsh and choakie, and furre in a man's mouth like allam, howbeit, being taken fully ripe, yt is a reason-able pleasant fruiet, somewhat lushious. I have seen our people put them into their baked and sodden puddings; there be whose tast allows them to be as pretious as the English apricock; I confess it is a good kind of horse plumb."
"'Simmon beer" and brandy are made from the fruit, and its seeds are roasted to use when coffee is scarce. The inner bark of the tree has tonic properties, and the country folk use it for the allaying of intermittent fevers. The wood is used in turnery, for shoe lasts, plane stocks and shuttles. It is a peculiarity of the persimmon tree that almost one hundred layers of pale sap-wood, the growth of as many years, lie outside of the black heart-wood, upon which the reputation of ebony rests.
The Japanese Persimmon
The native persimmon of Japan has been developed into an important horticultural fruit. China also has species that are fruit trees of merit. In the fruit stalls of all American cities, the Japanese persimmon is found in its season, the smooth, orange-red skin, easily mistaken for that of a tomato as the fruits lie in their boxes. The pointed cones differ in form, however, and the soft mellow flesh, with its melon-like seeds and leathery calyx at base, mark this fruit as still a novelty in the East.
In southern California no garden is complete without a Japanese persimmon tree to give beauty by its cheerful, leathery, green leaves and its rich-colored fruits. But the beginner will establish a grave personal prejudice against this fruit unless he wait until it is dead ripe, for it has the astringent qualities of its genus. No fruit is more delicate in flavor than a thoroughly ripe kaki, so soft that it must be eaten with a spoon.
The Department of Agriculture at Washington has established a number of varieties of these oriental fruit trees in the warmer parts of the United States. Our native persimmons are being used as stock upon which to graft the exotics. A distinct addition to the fruits of this country has thus been made and the public is fast learning to enjoy the luscious, wholesome Japanese persimmons.