The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a medium-sized tree that is native to most of the eastern half of the U.S. It grows in full sun and a wide variety of soils. The dark green leaves are your stereotypical “leaf shape” so aren’t much help by themselves for identifying the tree. The bark, however, is one of the key ways to identify a persimmon tree. When I was first learning to identify trees, I was told that persimmons have bark that looks like alligator skin and I’d say that’s a pretty good description. The bark tends to be a medium to dark grey color and on a mature tree it will divide into chunky blocks, often with an orange tinge running through the valleys between the blocks. Once you get the search image in your brain, it’s easy to walk through the woods and identify persimmon trees.
Persimmons are extremely valuable to wildlife and pollinators. The trees are dioecious, meaning that some trees only produce male flowers and some trees only produce female flowers. The small, cream-colored, bell-shaped flowers bloom in the spring, typically May to June in Kentucky. Bees, both native bees and honey bees, are the primary pollinators of persimmons. Female flowers that have been pollinated will produce fruits that will ripen and turn orange (sometimes with a bluish tinge) in the fall. The fruits, also called persimmons, are a favorite of deer, raccoons, opossums, foxes, and many other small mammals. Turkeys, quail, and some songbirds will also eat the fruit. Persimmon trees are also a host plant for the caterpillars of several moth species, including luna moths and royal walnut moths, which eat the foliage.
In addition to their value to wildlife and pollinators, persimmons also have a rich cultural history. Native Americans used to cultivate persimmon trees and would gather the fruit both to eat (ripe fruit) and for medicinal uses (unripe fruit). Even today, the ripe fruits are often gathered and eaten raw or cooked in breads, puddings, jams, fruit leather, etc. (Persimmon pudding is my absolute favorite way of eating persimmons.)
However, if you decide to gather persimmons, make sure they are ripe – unripe ones have a lot of pucker power and getting the unsuspecting person to eat one has long been a popular practical joke in many rural parts of the country. It is commonly said that persimmons don’t ripen until after the first frost, but that isn’t always true. I’ve gathered ripe persimmons in August – long before the first frost. As soon as I start seeing a bunch on the ground, I start checking them. A good ripe persimmon will almost always be found on the ground and, to me, feels like a slightly to moderately overripe peach. If you aren’t sure, then you can also use the taste test to determine whether they are ripe – believe me, you’ll know if you bite into an unripe persimmon.
According to folklore, you can also cut open the seeds to predict upcoming winter’s weather. If you cut open the seed and the white part looks like a spoon, then you are supposed to get tons of snow that you’ll have to shovel. If it looks like a fork, then you aren’t supposed to get much snow. If it looks like a knife, then you are supposed to have bitterly cold winds that cut like a knife. Like the wooly worm winter weather predictions, the persimmon weather forecast isn’t very accurate, but it’s still fun to play with.
Because persimmons can grow in a wide variety of soils, they are a good tree to consider planting if you are looking for a native fruit tree. The Kentucky Department of Forestry often has persimmon seedlings for sale. If you aren’t from Kentucky, check with your state’s Department of Forestry and there’s a good chance they’ll have persimmons if they have a tree nursery program.
If you want the fruit, then you’ll need to have a female tree and a male tree either on your property or nearby. Unfortunately, you can’t tell a male or female tree just by looking at the seedlings. You have to wait 5-10 years to see what kind of flowers it produces and/or if it produces fruit. That means you either have to plant a bunch of seedlings and hope that some of them are females, or you need to find a grafted tree for sale through more traditional nurseries which would ensure that you get a female tree.
If you are looking at grafted trees, then you can also check out some of the cultivars that have been developed through the horticulture industry for different fruiting characteristics. However, if you are buying a persimmon tree from a nursery, then it is worth noting that there is also a Japanese persimmon (Diospyros kaki) that is fairly common in the horticulture industry. So, if you are wanting to plant our native American persimmon then you’ll need to pay attention to the scientific names because both are commonly referred to as simply persimmons.
One word of caution, however, if you are thinking about planting persimmon trees. Don’t plant them near a horse pasture. Although deer and other wildlife commonly eat the fruit, horses didn’t evolve with persimmons and aren’t adapted to eating them. If a horse eats persimmons, they can cause a fibrous mass to form in the horse’s stomach or intestinal tract which can lead to death. Otherwise, as long as you aren’t planting them where horses will have easy access to them, persimmon trees are an excellent native tree to consider planting for pollinators, wildlife, and yourself.
This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.
Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.