by Erin Harper, University of Illinois Extension
Persimmon (Diospyros virginia) are Native to most of the eastern United States, from Connecticut south Florida and west to mid-Kansas. There is a non-native species (Diospyros kaki), native to Asia, which has been widely used in breeding and production in the United States. D. kaki has larger sweeter fruits with fewer seeds but is not cold hardy enough to survive the harsh Midwest winters.
Diospyros virginia trees mature to a height of 30-60 feet and have a rounded canopy. The bark is dark gray and extremely blocky. Persimmons have separate male and female plants, also known as dioecious. It is often hard to tell the sex of the plant before year three or after. The flowers bloom in May and are white to yellow; male flowers form in clusters and female flowers form alone. The leaves are glossy dark green and can be quite large, 2-6 inches long and 1 to 4 inches wide. Fruits ripen September to October depending on the cultivar, locations, and weather. Diospyros virginia fruits will continue ripening after harvest and can be harmed by frost. Therefore, be sure to harvest all fruits before the first frost of the fall. Native persimmon fruit is highly acidic and must fully ripen, or become completely soft, before it is pleasant to eat. The fruits will be about the size of a plum and have orange and bluish-purple coloring. The leaves will turn yellow-green in the fall.
The unharvested fruit may remain on the tree well into the winter and is an important food source for deer. Deer also eat the twigs and leaves of the tree through the year. Other wildlife, such as opossum, fox, coyote, and several bird species, also feed on the fruit in the winter. Many bees and moths utilize the tree through the spring and summer months.
As I have mentioned in a previous article, fall is a great time to plant trees. Fall planted trees will have time to take up water and establish before winter. Fall is also the time of year plants put energy into their root system growth so this is perfect for establishing new plants. When planting a tree or shrub, dig the hole twice the width and the exact high of the root ball. Remove all of burlap, twine, or other containing materials. Back fill the hole and gently tamp down dirt being sure not to cover the root collar at the base of the trunk. Only stake the tree if necessary ensuring not to make the supports too ridged. (https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/good-growing/2016-03-30-plant-tree ; https://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-and-plant-advice/horticulture-care/fall-planting-trees-and-shrubs).
Persimmons have a tap root allowing them to be very tolerant. They prefer moist sandy soils but will tolerate most anything. They are also drought tolerant. Sunlight amount can range from full sun to part shade with younger plants being more shade tolerant. This can allow you to plant these trees in the shadow of a tree which may be slowing fading or coming to the end of it’s life. The young persimmon can grow in the shadow of the older tree and get established before the larger older tree must come down. In late winter, prune suckers, dead or broken limbs, waterspouts, limbs with greater than a 45-degree angle, or limbs crossing each other too closely. Because persimmons are native, they have very few insect pests or diseases.
Persimmons are high in pectin and often used to make pudding, with no added thickeners needed. I have never made persimmon pudding, only consumed it at the Covered Bridge Festival in Indiana. The Mitchell Persimmon Festival (held in Mitchell, Indiana) has a list of the award winning recipes from the past several years (http://persimmonfestival.org/?page_id=29). You can preserve ripe persimmons by freezing a puree (https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/persimmon.html) or drying the fruit. The puree can then be used to make fresh pudding, cakes, cookies, or muffins throughout the winter and spring. Check out the Purdue Extension Food Link site (https://extension.purdue.edu/foodlink/food.php?food=persimmon) for recipes including brownies, cookies, and a fresh persimmon and spinach salad.