Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Persimmon
Nature Bulletin No. 239-A   October 8, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE PERSIMMON
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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