Introducing the king of fall fruits: persimmons!

It’s fall, the air is starting to get crisp, you are walking and you see these strange trees. You are sure that they are trees, yet they have these fruits that look like tomatoes… but they are on a tree. What are those fruits? They look so attractive with that wonderful orange… should you harvest them? Should you eat them? Are they any good? What IS this? In today’s post, I want to (re)introduce you to these plants and their fruits, and hopefully the next time you see them you will have answers to all those questions and will know what to do. 😉

persimmon tree in a yard
In the fall, persimmon trees are recognized for their many orange fruits that look like tomatoes! Photo: P. Tain.

What are these orange fruits?

These fruits are what here in the USA we call persimmons (from the Powhatan word “pichamin”). Persimmons are the fruits of a group of trees that belong to the same family as ebony, and that can be found on a number of continents, including North America. Among all the persimmon species that exist, a number of them are edible, producing fruits in late fall. In the USA, there are two persimmon species that produce edible fruits, and one of them is native to right here in Maryland: the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

Although the wild American persimmon still grows in our forests and was well-known by native Americans, who used its hardwood, consumed the fruits, and introduced them to the European colonists (see some Native American legends involving persimmons here), the American persimmons we see cultivated in orchards come from selected lines. Indeed, varieties of American persimmons have been selected, and many cultivars of American persimmons can be purchased and grown in gardens and orchards to produce fruit. Besides the American persimmon, there are also other species available for purchase, in particular the Oriental persimmon (D. kaki), which is very well-known in Europe.

close-up of an orange persimmon fruit in a tree
The American persimmon tree harbors fruits that turn orange, soft, and tend to fall when they are ripe. Photo: W. Pollard.

Although American and Oriental persimmons are edible both raw and cooked (see here for some recipes), it is important to note that the fruits are very astringent prior to ripening, meaning that they have to be ripe for them to be palatable. The level of ripening is usually shown by the coloration of the fruit (ripe fruits are orange), its softness (ripe fruits become soft to the touch), and their voluntary falling from the tree while not rotten. It is often said that persimmons need to go through a frost in order to ripen. This is in fact not accurate: unripe persimmons will simply rot after a frost; ripe persimmons will not rot after a frost and will in fact start slowly drying out, which will make them become sweeter. This may have led people to assume that frosts actually lead to ripening, while the frost will not help in the ripening of any fruit that was not already ripe at the moment of the frost.

Is it true that I need to plant more than one persimmon tree to have fruits?

The short answer is mostly no. American persimmon trees are what we call dioecious plants. This means that each plant will either harbor female flowers (which will become fruits) or male flowers (which will provide pollen for pollination and will not produce fruits). The first consequence of this is that if one plants or encounters a male plant, it will be impossible to ever harvest fruits from it. The second consequence of this is that a female persimmon flower needs to receive pollen from a male plant in order to produce seeds (and reproduce). In most wild forms of American persimmons, pollination is also required for fruit production.

small yellow flowers on a persimmon tree
American persimmon trees display small and delicate white flowers, which are either female or male. Photo: M. Beziat.

That being said, female plants of most selected cultivars of American persimmons can actually produce fruit without pollination. If they do not receive any pollen, these female flowers will still develop into fruits, which will not harbor any seeds and which will be fully edible. If one were to plant these cultivars in their garden or orchard, fruit production would not be restricted by female flower pollination.

But does that mean persimmons do not need pollinators?

Not really. Wild persimmons still need pollinators to transfer pollen from the male to the female plants. So who are these pollinators? In fact, we know relatively little about wild persimmon pollination. In terms of flowering time, American persimmons flower between May and June, and their flowers are small and white (and cute!). Floral visitors have not been extensively studied, but there is at least one study describing a large variety of wild bees (e.g., sweat bees, bumblebees, leaf cutter bees) visiting their flowers. From this respect, persimmons play a role in sustaining this group of pollinators and will benefit from their pollination services.

immature and adult moths that use persimmon trees for food
Persimmons also support other insects including many lovely moths from our region, such as Luna moths – top – and Regal moths – bottom). Photo: Askalotl, C. McClarren and A. Reagol, M. Clock-Rust.

Although not pollinated by them, persimmons also support other types of insects (and sometimes pollinators): moths! In fact, persimmon leaves are the favorite food of caterpillars of many native moths. In particular, Luna moth and regal moth (besides many others) caterpillars prefer persimmon leaves. It appears then that persimmons do not just feed us with their delicious fruits, but also feed many of these beautiful native moths, allowing for them to maintain their populations in our area!

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí. Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

3 Comments on “Introducing the king of fall fruits: persimmons!

  1. Do any nurseries carry the native American persimmon? And do the deer like to eat them?

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    • You would have to contact the nurseries and ask, or search for an online supplier. Here is a list of Maryland native plant nurseries. https://mdflora.org/nurseries.html

      The native persimmons are considered “moderately deer-resistant”. Plenty of them survive in the woods where there are deer. It is a good idea to use fencing or a tree guard to protect a newly planted tree until it gets established.

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