Yes, that was me creeping around in the bushes off Old Church Road…
I was out collecting wild persimmons, one of the best tasting and most unique fruits in our flora.
Persimmons ripen late in the season. Often I am collecting them off of boughs that have already shed their leaves. The black-barked persimmon trees, naked of leaves but laden with orange fruits, fit in well with the general Halloween aesthetic and season.
And it's no use looking for persimmons too early. Many who have tasted an underripe persimmon resist ever tasting one again. Their astringency goes beyond the nuances of flavor, poor or otherwise: astringency binds and precipitates salivary proteins making the mouth feel dry and puckered.
A fully ripe persimmon, soft-fleshed and deep-hued, is another matter and worth the wait. It's a fitting closer for the wild fruit season that begins with wild strawberries, courses through Rubus (black- and raspberries), Prunus (cherries and plums) and various Ericaceae (blueberries and huckleberries), goes tropical for a moment with pawpaws, and draws down with Viburnums like blackhaw and nannyberry.
Honey-sweet, fragrant as an apricot, smooth like jam; no wonder persimmon's Latin genus name, Diospyros, means "fruit of the gods". Our wild species here in the Eastern United States is Diospyros virginiana.
One of the first native plants I tried to propagate was American persimmon. The prior fall I had found a few straggly trees at the edge of the wet meadow near our cottage. I was drawn to the dark, alligator-skin like bark and then astonished to find small, blotchy orange fruit hanging from jagged twigs. Persimmons! I have no recollection if I knew that native persimmons existed when I first found those trees, and I still find myself in disbelief when I find a plentiful stand of these fruit-bearers and am reminded how delicious they are.
Those first trees were in the Piedmont, over diabase rock, in characteristic edge-of-the-forest habitat. Indeed, persimmons are well-represented in a variety of habitats and soils, though always cherishing light and edges. They become rarer north of the glacial moraine and in higher elevation mountain habitats. Their greatest prevalence in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic may be along the coastal plain, on sandy ecotones. They are also strongly associated with riverine habitats.
Though usually a small tree, often growing in colonial stands something like sassafras, some individuals can grow to impressive size. For example, the South Carolina state record measured at 132' tall in 1995.[i] Meanwhile, in the Outer Banks and Virginia Beach area, I've collected delicious fruits from trees that were shorter than I am.
The American persimmon fruit bears some explaining. Typically soft and sticky when ripe, this is not a fruit that ships well or is easy to present for sale. Often it reaches full ripeness in October and beyond, making it a valuable extender for the native fruit season. I've sometimes picked ripe persimmons off of snowy ground, their skin turning blackish purple and the insides a perfect orange hue and honeysweet flavor.
While we usually consume our persimmons fresh, Cherokee women and other Native American gatherers collected and dried persimmons, sometimes kneading them into cakes and pemmican.[ii] Others have used them to prepare anything from ice cream to beer. Sometimes it is a challenge dealing with the remnant astringency that even ripe persimmons can have, when processing them in bulk. Wild persimmons can be very variable in this regard, and a number of cultivars exist that are selected for lesser astringency or firmer flesh.
Persimmons are frequently mentioned in early explorer's accounts of Indian husbandry of native fruit trees. For example, Pedro Mártir de Anglería's account of the Carolina or Georgia coast natives in the early 1500s states: "They cultivate orchards, and they have many types of fragrant plants and they like to cultivate gardens; in the orchards they cultivate trees: in particular one that is called corito, that produces a delicious fruit." According to historian William Doolittle, one scholar suggests that corito was probably persimmon; another fruit described was probably a native plum.[iii]
Persimmon is a very flexible species in terms of siting. It grows in a wide variety of soils and is somewhat tolerant of flooding and compaction[iv]. Persimmons that are cut or damaged often respond by sprouting prolifically along their root systems, and persimmons can be aggressively colonial in certain circumstances. They are not shade-tolerant or competitive with other trees.
Some have conjectured that persimmon's wide range in the wild may be attributable to deliberate selection and dispersal by humans. It is certainly well-attested in archaeological record:
Historically, [Persimmon] was a common component of the Native American diet throughout the southeastern Unites States... Archaeobotanical data from three Late Archaic period (300– 800 BC) sites in the Lower Mississippi Valley found persimmon to be the most ubiquitous fruit crop used... Paleobotanical analysis of refuse pits from two Mississippian (900−1700 AD) sites identified D. virginiana in 78–80% of pits.[v]
It seems that persimmons have been selected for and managed for in a variety of ways, on a spectrum from encouragement and protection to outright orcharding by Native Americans.
In addition to being delicious for us, persimmons are of high wildlife value for mammals and birds. Often in the fall one can find scat of foxes, raccoons, and other mammals with persimmon's flat seeds clearly embedded in it.
Southern herbalists have used persimmon root bark, leaves, and unripe fruit as astringent agents in addressing thrush, diarrhea, sore throat, and ulcers. Appalachian folk herbalist Tommie Bass suggested that "if you have stomach ulcers, why, you can make a tea from the bark of the roots and it will kill the ulcer graveyard dead! It makes a real sweet tasting tea and won't pucker you up..."[vi]
We have a dozen or so persimmon trees planted on our farm, the oldest about five years old. I can't wait until they're producing so I don't have to drive an hour to Old Church Road and creep around in the underbrush.
Oh, if you're one of those obsessive persimmon/pawpaw people and are about to use Google Maps to try to find every instance of Old Church Road in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in order to find my patch, save yourself the trouble and just give me a holler and I'll clue you in to some good spots. Maybe I made up the road name anyway!
One public stand of persimmons is at the top of Baldpate Mountain in Mercer County NJ, just across from the little lodge with public restrooms in it. I don't imagine that the County Parks rules officially sanction collecting fruit, but figure that out for yourself. I think it's a great way of developing a deeper nature connection - with one of our finest native fruits.
[i] Porcher, Richard Dwight, and Douglas A. Rayner. A guide to the wildflowers of South Carolina. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
[ii] Hill, Sarah H. Weaving new worlds: Southeastern Cherokee women and their basketry. University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
[iii] Doolittle, William Emery. Cultivated landscapes of native North America. Oxford University Press, 2000.
[iv] Gargiullo, Margaret B. A guide to native plants of the New York City region. Rutgers University Press, 2007.
[v] Ross, Nanci J., et al. "The ecological side of an ethnobotanical coin: Legacies in historically managed trees." American journal of botany 101.10 (2014): 1618-1630.
[vi] Patton, Darryl. Mountain Medicine: The Herbal Remedies of Tommie Bass. Natural Reader Press, 2004.