American Persimmon

I will never forget the time I went to the grocery store and bought what I thought were strange tomato varieties. I got home and dug into them only to discover they were not tomatoes at all. I quickly realized the error in my judgment. Instead of the unmistakable flavor of a tomato, what I experienced was something slightly sweet and kind of astringent. I had inadvertently purchased a couple persimmon fruits. I was young and naive so I will cut myself some slack, however, like any good mistake, I was rewarded by the inadvertent introduction to a fascinating fruit I had never experienced before. 

Thinking this to be some strange tropical species, I was surprised to learn that North America does indeed have its own species of persimmon. Known scientifically as Diospyros virginiana, the American persimmon is native to much of the eastern U.S. but is absent north of Pennsylvania. We are lucky, biogeographically speaking, to have this species as the family to which it belongs, Ebenaceae, is predominantly tropical. It is an early successional tree species, often growing on recently abandoned farmland. In the spring this shrubby tree produces small yet attractive white and yellow flowers. American persimmon are dioecious meaning individual trees are either male or female. Their main pollinators are bees.  

As is often seen with many fruiting tree species,  there is a lot of variety between the fruits of different persimmons. They can range in size from small crabapples to the tomato-like fruits we find in the grocery store. There are those who suspect the fruits of the American persimmon to be a throwback to a time when animals like woolly mammoths and ground sloths roamed this continent, dispersing persimmon seeds as they roamed across the terrain. Indeed, fossils of American persimmon have been found in Miocene deposits in areas of Greenland and Alaska which suggests that this species has undergone range contraction, potentially due to the loss of these large seed dispersers. However, modern day evidence would seem to suggest otherwise. Today, much smaller animals like raccoons and opossum seem to do just as good of a job as a larger animal would. It is likely that the constricted range of the American persimmon has more to do with climate than seed dispersal. 

If you have never tried a persimmon before then seek one out and give it a go. If you find them in a grocery store, there is a good chance the fruit belongs to the Asian species (Diospyros kaki). The key to enjoying an American persimmon is making sure its ripe. If you are too early you are going experience some of the worst tannin dry mouth (I honestly don't think I will ever convince my mother to eat another strange fruit again). Either way, this neat species often goes overlooked until it is in fruit. Keep your eye out for fruiting persimmon in your area and report back if you decide to sample some. 

Photo Credit: Doug McAbee (http://bit.ly/1xznvPx)

Further Reading:
http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/diospyros/virginiana.htm