Pleistocene Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana)

Every year, I gather persimmons from a tree growing on a narrow strip of land between an expressway and a mall parking lot.  I know enough to wait until early December before I harvest the fruit.  Though a few varieties do ripen as early as mid-September, most don’t bear ripe fruit until winter.  Many people unfairly dismiss persimmons because they’ve eaten unripe ones.  The tannic acid in an unripe persimmon gives a person the feeling of having a mouth full of cotton.  Persimmons look ripe to the unpracticed eye for several months before they are actually good to eat.  They must be soft and mushy to touch before one knows the sugar has replaced all the tannic acid.  The ripening process has nothing to do with frost, but rather length of exposure to sunlight. They need so many hours of sunlight to ripen that they usually aren’t ready to eat until after the first frost.

Shroom 023

I picked about 3 pounds.  I picked these on December 1st.  The fruit on the tree growing next to this one was still not ripe.  I had another photo I wanted to use, but decided not to post it because I didn’t realize my checkbook was in the background.  I didn’t think it was a good idea to have my account number on the internet.

Persimmons are very sweet and to me taste like perfumed dates.  I simply pop them in my mouth and spit out the seeds.  They are one of the most nutritious fruits in the world.  The food value of this fruit attracts many species of mammals including fox, possum, raccoon, and bear.

Possum eating persimmon.  They don’t swallow the seed and are not good dispersers of the fruit.

Raccoon reaching for persimmon.  They do swallow the seeds and are good dispersers for the fruit.

Possums are famous for loving persimmons, but they are not effective dispersers of the seed.  One study proved that possums rarely swallow the seed.  In this experiment possums were given 63 persimmons and only 1 seed was ingested.  Raccoons, foxes, and bears are better dispersers of the fruit because they do swallow the seeds and scatter them in their scats.  Another study found that persimmons were a favorite food of raccoons.  Raccoons chose persimmons over corn, crayfish, eggs, earthworms and 5 other items.

Persimmons are considered only slightly anachronistic, unlike pawpaws, honey locust, and osage orange–3 plants that were entirely dependent on extinct megafauna for dispersal. A mastodon likely gobbled down persimmons by the hundreds and spread them all over the landscape.  Persimmons have been found in mastodon dung excavated from the Aucilla River in Florida.  The tree can resprout vegetatively, so they could have withstood heavy proboscidean pruning.  However, persimmons are still  common  and not local in distribution like other more anachronistic species.  In abandoned fields in Georgia persimmon is almost as common loblolly pine, oak, and sweetgum–the pioneer trees of early forest succession here.

Persimmons are in the ebony family which includes approximately 200 species.  Most are tropical.  The American species and the closely related Asian species grow in temperate zones.  The both descend from a common ancestor that lived on both continents during the Miocene.  The only other common American species is the black sapote (Diospyros digyna) which grows in Mexico and Central America.  (A rare third species occurs in Puerto Rico.)

A large species of African persimmon is entirely dependent upon elephants for dispersal.  The fruit is also eaten by chimpanzees and gorillas, but the seeds are too large for them to swallow.  Only elephants are big enough to swallow the seeds of this species.

Elephants are the sole disperser of a large species of African persimmon.

Persimmon Bread

Here’s Euell Gibbons’ recipe for persimmon bread.  It is excellent and I make it every year.

Beat 1 and 1/2 sticks of softened butter with 1 cup of sugar.  Add 1 cup of persimmon pulp and 2 beaten eggs, and 1/2 cup of chopped nuts.  Add 2 cups of bread flour and 1 teaspoon of baking powder.  No liquid is required.  Spoon the batter in a well-greased loaf pan and bake for 1 hour at 325 degrees.

It is tedious to separate the seeds from the pulp.  It takes about 40 wild persimmons to equal 1 cup of pulp.  I don’t even bother removing the skins, and a few seeds always end up in the bread.  It would be convenient to find a female persimmon tree that was left unfertilized.  Unfertilized female persimmon trees bear seedless persimmons.  I know of a persimmon tree that bears seedless persimmons, but it grows on an island in Woodbridge Lake in Evans, Georgia and is only accessible via canoe.  The lake must isolate it from pollination.  Grocery store persimmons come from female trees that are commercially grown in isolation from male trees.  They are all seedless, but I can’t bring myself to pay money for a fruit I can obtain for free.


Barlow, Connie

“The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms”

Basic Books 2000

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5 Responses to “Pleistocene Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana)”

  1. Mark L Says:

    Interesting stuff, Mark. My neighbor who is on a ridgeline has osage orange plants everywhere (what distributes these plants?), in between are honey locusts and persimmons and eastern hemlocks. It’s also where the allegheny woodrats and the turkeys hang out. Hard to believe these are all on an acre and a half.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    When Europeans first discovered America, the range of osage orange was limited to a small area controlled by 1 Indian tribe. The wood of Osage orange was prized for making bows, and this 1 Indian tribe had complete control of the resource. Later, Europeans planted Osage orange as an ornamental tree that also formed hedges. The hedges are like a natural fence used to keep livestock in a pasture.

    • Mark L Says:

      Oh and she’s got those tiny chinese oranges with giant thorns too…..nasty stuff….my son lost 2 footballs to them already. Rumor has it the feral goats eat the oranges, so at least I know how they are spreading.

  3. James Robert Smith Says:

    I eat persimmons only occasionally. In my job as a letter carrier I would encounter them frequently. They are delicious as you say. But once, when I was a kid, I made the mistake of biting into one that was unripe. YOW! They really do cause your mouth to pucker.

    Because the fruit is so good and so easily available to all types of herbivores and omnivores, I don’t think it’s had the problems of some other trees and plants since the extinction of the various Pleistocene megafauna.

    I have heard from a number of sources that there is a guy (a nameless billionaire from all of the notes I’ve read) who is keen to release Indian elephants into the ecosystem of the southern USA. To that end, rumor has it, he has a number of them on a vast (and fenced) ranch in Texas.

    He has done this, I’ve read, because Indian elephants are the closest living relative of the North American mammoth.

    The introduction of free-ranging elephants will never happen, of course, but it’s nice to think that there is someone out there thinking of doing it.

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