The small, soft orange fruit peeking through dark green foliage look especially inviting. Giving in to temptation, you pick one, it resists leaving the tree but comes off in your hand. A big bite and then - Oh Dear! - more pucker power than any sour lemon ever thought of! Unripe Persimmon fruit are notoriously astringent but truly ripe fruit still on the tree are hard to distinguish from their unfriendly neighbors. In spite of the tricky fruit, our native Persimmon tree, Diospyros virginiana, has much to offer our regional landscapes.
The Persimmon is a member of the Ebony family, an interesting group of tropical, hard wooded trees, including the Ebony tree. Persimmon wood is therefore very dense and close-grained and is used for such things as golf club heads, veneers and billiard cues.
Persimmons are relatively slow growing, slender, deciduous trees that can reach 35-50 feet in height with an oval crown 20-30 feet wide. The foliage is dark green and lustrous with a lighter underside. One of the most interesting and distinctive aspects of this tree is the bark. The bark is dark grey and covers Persimmon trees with a thick hide of small, squarish blocks reminiscent of alligator skin. Children love the feel of it.
Persimmon trees produce persimmons, of course, which some consider a mixed blessing. In the early autumn, the orange fruits are attractive on the tree. When fully ripe, they are delicious eaten fresh or in puddings but beware the unripe persimmon! It's bite is far worse than it's bark. To tell if a fruit is truly ripe, make sure it is very soft to the touch and beginning to darken from the bright orange that appears to indicate ripeness. The best fruit are often those that have just fallen from the tree after the first frost. The deer, wild turkey, raccoons and skunks (!) all know this and will be attracted to a fruiting Persimmon tree. This is especially fun for children of all ages. The fallen fruit can be a bit of a nuisance if Persimmon is planted near a walk or drive but the delights of the fruit outweigh any inconvenience.
Persimmon trees have a lovely shape that's particularly picturesque in naturalistic settings. They prefer moist, sandy soils but will do fine in dry, poor soils as well. The flowers are inconspicuous, but in our area, Persimmon trees generally have attractive yellow to purple-bronze fall color that's especially striking when they're fruiting.
Established Persimmon trees are difficult to move because they have long taproots. Purchase balled and burlaped young trees and transplant in the spring to avoid difficulties. There is a black leaf spot that attacks Persimmon trees late in the season but this should not prevent you from planting these charming trees because they are not usually severely affected.
Persimmon trees are often found growing along fence rows and country roads where the seeds have been left by wildlife. This is because Persimmons easily reproduce themselves from seed. For this reason, Persimmon is readily propagated by stratified seed, that is, seed which has been layered in peat moss, or some other moisture holding material like sand, and, usually, stored for some time at cold temperatures. This treatment helps break the seeds' dormancy. In spite of the ease of propagation from seed, most named cultivars are propagated asexually and grafted onto seedling understock to retain their unique character.
Dr. J. C. Raulston, the Arboretum's Director, notes that Persimmons vary greatly in fruit size, quality, color and taste among plants of seedling trees. Therefore, it is well worth the effort to seek out superior trees to return to for the best eating each year. To assure high quality from planted landscape trees, he recommends seeking for the vegetatively propagated, named varieties of Persimmons. Nothing evokes the warm, lazy feeling of a fall afternoon in the Southern countryside like the sight of two or three Persimmon trees lounging against a split-rail fence, their devilishly delicious fruit hanging just out of reach. Plant Persimmon trees in the naturalized areas of your landscape and treat the animals and yourselves to the Persimmon's many sweet delights.