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Persimmons dropping early this year

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By Jeneen Wiche

The apple orchard has been picked clean. Some are stowed in the refrigerator, some are applesauce, some are frozen, and the rest are dried and sitting patiently on the shelf until the dead of winter. (We are not allowed to eat them until all the fresh ones are eaten!)

Our attention now turns to some other native fruit treats as the season winds downs. The persimmons are ripening and dropping at a consistent rate now, which warrants an almost daily trip to the tress for harvest. Weather is such an initiator, for better or worse. We pick persimmons about every other day, either from the ground — one way to ensure your persimmon is ripe — or by gently shaking branches to dislodge ripe fruit from hard-to-reach branches.

Persimmons are the kind of fruit that you eat on the fly. I usually eat my daily allowance as I harvest; the rest go in a bowl in the refrigerator. My husband has taken to smearing a whole fruit on toast, instant jelly. I think this is a great idea.

The persimmons we have been eating here at the farm are smaller, softer and sweeter than the large firm ones we see at the grocery. Although we do have an up-and-coming tree that has, for the first time, set very large fruit. The store-bought persimmons are an Asian species; ours are mostly all-American, and the most productive is a cultivated American variety named “Evelyn.”

Persimmons are one of those great American natives found throughout the southeast from Connecticut to Kansas. The American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is hardy in zones 4-9, will reach 35 to 65 feet in height and is considered a slow grower. They are typically seen in old farm fields and in fence rows; and are most notable once the tree has lost all its leaves revealing the orange 1 1/2-inch fruit holding tightly to its branches.

Most people who collect persimmons from native trees wait until the first hard frost, when the fruit drops to the ground. Certainly, this is a necessity because trees in their native habitat can reach upwards of 65 feet. But there is also the issue of ripeness. Many feel that this is the only way to ensure that the persimmons you are harvesting are truly ripe.

Eating a persimmon that is not quite ripe is a most startling experience. The bitter flavor that seems to draw every moisture molecule from your mouth, elicits the worst puckered-lip-face ever associated with taste. I actually know people who are afraid to eat persimmons because of this experience. I manage to eat a not quite ripe persimmon once every year, but only once. I feel pretty confident in my ability to choose only ripe ones.

Here’s what to look for when harvesting persimmons. Usually if they have fallen from the tree they are ready to eat. Check every-or every other-day for harvest. Unripe persimmons hold securely to the branch. If they have not fallen or do not come loose from the tree easily they are not yet ready to eat.

Even more of an indication of ripeness has to do with the softness of the flesh and the color of the skin. Ripe persimmons take on a rosy-orange color, and the flesh feels like it is nearly too ripe (compared to other fruits). Pick them because they are at their peak.

The American persimmon is the best choice for our clime and there are number of good cultivated varieties that are ideal for the home orchard. The cultivated varieties typically reach about 30 to 50 feet and it has been my experience that they ripen sooner than a “ripening frost.” “Evelyn,” for example, started producing ripe fruit last week. “Yates,” “Meander” and “John Rick” are also good selections. We have also added to our collection some Ukrainian persimmons, which are a hybrid between the Oriental and American species. This hybrid has the fruit size of the Asian persimmon and the hardiness of the American; however, ‘Nikita’s Gift’ did suffer some tip dieback after last winter’s cold.

Persimmons like rich, well-drained soil, full sun and plenty of room. Seek out young trees for planting because they will establish more quickly (and successfully). American persimmons need cross-pollination between a male and female tree. Many of the Oriental varieties can self-pollinate.

Check Nolin Nut Nursery (www.nolinnursery.com) for a local selection of cultivars.