Nature Bulletin No. 239-A October 8, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
Late autumn, in southern Illinois and Indiana, is when the persimmon
trees hang heavy with luscious fruit ready for picking: soft and squashy
-- dead ripe. Then we not only eat them raw but we have those rare
treats: persimmon pudding, persimmon pie, and upside-down cake
covered with this fruit which has such sweet juicy flesh and such unique
flavor. Then the womenfolks make persimmon jelly and a syrup thick as
molasses. Some still make "simmon beer". Then the raccoons, foxes,
squirrels, skunks, wild turkeys and bobwhite quail all have a feast. Then
the possums get fat and sassy.
This fruit is something like a big round plum, with four broad brown
woody bracts at the base where it is attached to the twig by a short thick
stem. It varies from 1 to 2 inches or more in diameter, depending upon
the tree and the locality. As it ripens, it turns from green to orange with
a purplish sheen and, finally, to a mellow orange-red. Contrary to
popular belief, it is not true that persimmons will not ripen until after a
hard frost. A favorite trick played upon an unsuspecting city boy is to
get him to eat a not-quite-ripe persimmon, whereupon his lips, gums
and tongue pucker up until he cannot spit or talk. This astringent
quality, due to tannin, disappears in the fully ripened fruit.
The yellowish-brown flesh encloses several large flattened seeds, brown
and hard, which the southern Indians used to grind into meal, and which
the pioneers roasted as a substitute for coffee.
The persimmon is native, though rare, as far north as central Illinois,
southeastern Iowa, and southern Connecticut on the Atlantic Coast. It is
most abundant farther south. It attains greatest size in the Mississippi
Basin and there are records of persimmon trees in the bottomland
forests of the Wabash valley which were more than 100 feet tall and 2
feet in diameter. Ordinarily, however, it does not exceed 25 or 30 feet
in height and a foot in diameter. It commonly occurs with other trees in
oak and hickory woodlands but, along with sassafras and sumac, young
persimmons will "take over" worn-out eroded abandoned fields in
southern Illinois and Indiana.
The mature trees have thick dark-brown or dark-gray bark deeply
divided into small square plates. The leaves are broad and pointed, with
smooth edges; from 4 to 6 inches long and about half as wide dark
green and leathery on top, pale green below. The small greenish male
and female flowers are borne on separate trees. The thick sapwood is
yellow but the heartwood is nearly black and, although it rots quickly
underground, is so dense, hard, heavy and strong that it is the preferred
wood for mallets, shoe lasts, the heads of golf clubs, the butts of billiard
cues, and the shuttles used in textile weaving.
The persimmon is a member of the E bony Family and is called
"American Ebony". Most species of this family are native to Asia but
there is one, the chapote, found in Mexico and from Texas to southern
California. It is a small tree with black small fruit. A Japanese species
was introduced into California in 1870 and many horticultural varieties
have been developed from it. Their fruits, although the flavor is not so
exquisite as that of our native persimmon, are larger and can be shipped
for commercial use, Because of its long taproot, the tree is extremely
difficult to transplant but it is readily grown from seeds.
Lips that touch a green persimmon never shall touch mine.
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Update: June 2012