Persimmon surprise. June 4, 2010Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: American persimmon, Meader persimmon, persimmons
No, this isn’t one of Silence Dogood’s recipes. It’s a shock our friend Ben received earlier this week while inspecting our ‘Meader’ American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana ‘Meader’).
First, a bit of backstory: Our friend Ben grew up with a huge American persimmon tree in the front yard of our Nashville home. That tree must have been 80 feet tall. Every year, it produced an abundance of persimmons, which typically fell to the ground and fermented, doubtless to the joy of local wildlife and wasps. My parents didn’t consider persimmons edible—citing their sour, astringent flavor—and would always sing us a song about a ‘possum and raccoon eating them. I grew up thinking that persimmons were good for wildlife but useless as far as people were concerned, though I loved looking at the fruit with its matte blue-purple blush over the orange skin and flesh, a color combination unlike any I’d ever seen.
Our friend Ben would probably have continued assuming that American persimmons weren’t fit to eat (I knew by adulthood that Japanese persimmons, Diospyros kaki, were supposed to live up to their generic epithet, Diospyros, which means “food of the gods”), were it not for two things: the gift of a batch of homemade persimmon cookies, and a visit to Lennilea Farm Nursery in nearby Huff’s Church, PA during persimmon season.
The cookies were delicious. And when I arrived at Lennilea, Bob Seip, its knowledgeable and amiable proprietor, was gathering fallen American persimmons from under his row of persimmon trees. “Here, try these,” he said, offering a handful. Well, even our friend Ben wasn’t going to scream “Eeeewww, no, you’re not supposed to eat those!!!” when Bob Seip was eating them in front of my eyes. (And besides, I remembered those cookies.) So, trying not to look too appalled, I bit into one, expecting a mouth-puckering astringency to hit my tongue at any second. But no, it was juicy and delicious. Shock surprise, in the immortal words of Ruby Ann Boxcar.
After that, I was damned and determined to grow an American persimmon of my own here at Hawk’s Haven. And the best on the market appeared to be ‘Meader’, a selection by the famed fruit specialist Dr. Meader of New Hampshire. If it was good enough for the famed professor, it was certainly good enough for our friend Ben.
I ordered my first ‘Meader’ persimmon. It died. I ordered my next ‘Meader’ persimmon. It died. I ordered a third ‘Meader’ persimmon. (Our friend Ben is nothing if not determined, and besides, I couldn’t say for sure if it hadn’t been my haphazard watering that had killed off the first two.) This one, too, appeared to have died when the puny little thing failed to leaf out the following spring. But I didn’t have the heart to pull the pitiful stick out of the ground. And one day, long after I’d lost all hope, I saw that it had actually leafed out. Mirabile dictu! Still, the tiny tree struggled mightily over our third drought season in a row. It barely grew at all before dormancy set in.
Sure enough, the next spring, I thought it had died again. But eventually it bore leaves, though the main trunk had died back about 6 inches, causing a wealth of side branches to come out (fortunately, above the graft, so I knew they were still ‘Meader’ stock). That was last spring, and we had a lot of rain all year. Still, it seemed like poor ‘Meader’ was barely clinging to life.
This spring, I held my breath as I watched the still-puny plant refuse to leaf out yet again. I had to warn the neighbors not to mow down the seemingly lifeless stick by mistake. But eventually, it did leaf out, and this time, it leafed out with enthusiasm. To say that it looked like a tree would be a ludicrous exaggeration, since it still doesn’t come up to my waist. A luxurious shrub would be more like it.
Finally, let’s get on to the point of this post: A few days ago, our friend Ben was wandering over to say a few words of encouragement to little ‘Meader’ when I saw something that took my breath away: flowers. My ‘Meader’ persimmon was literally covered with flowers! I’d never thought to see a persimmon flower in my life, since the diminutive greenish flowers would hardly be visible if you were staring up into the canopy of a 60- to 80-foot tree. But thanks to the struggles of my hapless plant, I was staring down. And those flowers were just amazing.
At first, our friend Ben thought that the pendant green lantern-like structures I was seeing were the flowers. But a couple of days later, I saw that pale yellow bell-shaped flowers had emerged beneath the green shell, which I realized was a calyx. Small but simply beautiful! And what a gift to be able to see them up close.
Rushing to Google “American persimmon” to see if I could find a better description of the flowers for you all, I stumbled on some fascinating and some alarming information. First, the fascinating: Did you know that ebony is a species of persimmon? Who’da thunk? Next, the alarming: Wikipedia assured me that you needed both male and female trees to get fruit set. Yikes!
Our friend Ben should have remembered that prolific tree in my parent’s yard, but I panicked instead. Searching again, this time for ‘Meader’ persimmon, I saw to my relief that it’s supposed to be self-fruitful, so I shouldn’t need a male tree after all. (There was a good deal of controversy about this on the web, with some claiming that it was only self-fruitful in the pacific Northwest, and others stoutly asserting that their ‘Meaders’ were bearing fruit without benefit of male pollination in the Mid-Atlantic area.) Fingers crossed!
What about all that astringency stuff? The accepted lore is to let American persimmons stay on the tree until a frost hits and sweetens them, but I’ve been reliably informed that by the time the fruits are ripe enough to drop off the tree (or be shaken off), they’ll be just as sweet. Certainly that was the case with Bob Seip’s trees! If you’re worried about astringency, you could always freeze your persimmons, then eat them frozen as a delicious treat or thaw them and add them to puddings, pies, sweet breads, or, of course, cookies!
Needless to say, our friend Ben has been enthusiastically drawing Silence’s attention to the flowers and hinting about persimmon cookies. (I try not to mention them more than four or five times a day.) If you need an attractive shade tree for your yard that will also bear fruit, I recommend an American persimmon. Unlike my micro-’Meader’, yours should grow tall and strong. So you may not ever have the chance to see the wonderful flowers, but you should get a wealth of delicious persimmons year after year. Eat and enjoy, but please leave a few for our wild friends, too!