The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a Missouri-native tree known for its edible fruit and cultural connections.
With a range covering much of the eastern United States, persimmons are a common sight in open woodlands, prairies and glades. The distinctive bark, composed of thick rectangular sections that some compare to the look of alligator skin, makes it easy to identify this tree even when no leaves or fruits are present.
Persimmons are typically dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female trees. Flowers appear in late spring to early summer—in small clusters on male trees, and solitary, urn-shaped flowers on female trees. On female trees, the fruit ripens from green to orange in the fall.
The bark, female flower, and fruit of Diospyros virginiana. Photos via Tropicos.
Foragers beware: while ripe fruits are sweet and edible, unripe fruits are extremely astringent and will leave you with an unpleasant taste and mouthfeel. A good rule of thumb is to wait until the fruits are soft enough to gently squeeze the pulp out through the skin, sometimes occurring after the first frost.
Ripe persimmons are too soft for shipping and commercial sale, but foraged fruits can be eaten raw or used in jams, breads, and other pastries. There is a type of persimmon sold in some grocery stores, but this larger and hardier fruit comes from Diospyros kaki, a species native to China and grown all over the world.
Other botanical family members with edible fruit include the black sapote or chocolate pudding fruit (Diospyros nigra) from Central America, the date-plum (Diospyros lotus) from the Caucasus region of Europe and Asia, and the jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformis) from tropical Africa.
An American persimmon (left) compared to the larger Asian persimmon (right).
Persimmons and People
Persimmons were historically used by Indigenous cultures throughout eastern North America. The English word ‘persimmon’ is said to derive from adaptation of Native American dialects, such as the Algonquin word for the fruit, putchamin.
The Native American Ethnobotany Database lists more than a dozen documented uses for the plant across four different tribes or nations. This database provides a window into the use of this plant by Indigenous cultures but, given the wide natural distribution of persimmons, is likely just a small sample of the true scope of its use and importance.
According to the database, in addition to using the persimmon as food, the Cherokee also used a syrup made from the fruit to treat a range of ailments from sore throats to diarrhea. The persimmon would have also been a traditional food and medicine source for the Osage nation, whose ancestral territory once included much of Missouri.
The story of the persimmon also intersects with the history of people who were enslaved and brought to North America from Africa against their will. Award-winning chef and author Michael Twitty discusses this connection in his book The Cooking Gene. Twitty notes how the similarity of American fruit to other edible Diospyros species from Africa would have helped enslaved people adapt the use of the persimmon into their diets and customs.
In The Cooking Gene, Twitty shares a family recipe for persimmon beer, which he says would have been brewed and used to celebrate with others.
More: Michael Twitty talks persimmons with Atlas Obscura
A Forecasting Fruit?
One popular myth associated with the persimmon is the purported ability of its seeds to forecast the weather. According to lore, one can predict the severity of an upcoming winter season by cutting a persimmon seed in half and looking at the shape of the cotyledon. A fork shape foreshadows a mild winter, a spoon (or shovel) shape means heavy snow, and a knife shape predicts cutting winds. You’ll have to judge for yourself how accurate the weather-predicting persimmon seed really is.
Persimmon seeds in this photo would seem to indicate a snowy winter.
The American persimmon is one of about 800 species in the genus Diospyros, many of which are commonly called “Ebonies” because of their dark heartwood. The timber from certain ebonies is highly sought-after for use in making furniture or musical instruments, leading to unsustainable, and often illegal, harvesting.
In Madagascar, where there are some 250 species of Diospyros, the Garden has used its expertise in botany and taxonomy to help protect these threatened trees. The Madagascar Precious Wood Project helped identify and catalog these species, providing Malagasy officials with information that will hopefully be used to protect threatened species and allow for sustainable harvesting of others.
Through the Precious Wood Project, Garden botanists were able to name and describe 45 new species of Diospyros in Madagascar since 2019. More than half of those species are currently threatened with extinction.
Diospyros virginiana is not threatened or endangered by timber harvesting like other members of its botanical family. Persimmon heartwood, while dark, is typically much thinner than other ebony species. The wood is however used to make golf club heads, veneer, and some other wood products.
A wood sample of a Diospyros species with dark heartwood.
Persimmons at the Garden
The bulk of the Garden’s research on Diospyros focuses on describing and better understanding species found in places like Madagascar and New Caledonia. But the Garden Herbarium contains hundreds of specimens of Diospyros virginiana. These specimens were collected across the plant’s native range, from Florida to New Jersey and west to Texas and Kansas—and chronologically from the early 1800s to the present. Herbarium specimens help tell a more complete story about this species and can help researchers answer any number of questions that might arise.
The Garden has four species of Diospyros in its living collection, with the American persimmon being most prominent. Visitors can find small groves in the William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening, and in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve.
There are two plantings of Asian persimmon, one each in the Chinese Garden and Japanese Garden, and a black sapote in the Climatron. The Garden is also propagating several specimens of the date-plum which will eventually be moved to public display.
We understand it can be tempting, but please don’t pick the fruits at the Garden. And if you feel inspired to go out in search of your own persimmons, please make sure you have permission to do so from the property owner. If you do come across this species on a crisp fall day, we certainly hope the fruits are ripe enough for you to enjoy this wonderful native food source.
Senior Digital Media Specialist