Friday, September 9, 2016

Foraging: identifying and sustainably harvesting wild Virginian (American) persimmons


So last September, I think on Labor Day weekend, I went out for a forage, and I found wild persimmons, Diospyros virginiana. They were hard as rocks, and quite unripe, so I looked them up and figured they'd be ready to go in November. So I waited, came back in November, and the trees were completely bare. 

This Labor Day weekend, I went out again, and found them to be just starting to ripen. So what the season for these guys is, I don't quite know yet. 

I do know that I got my first taste of wild Virginian (or American) persimmon, and it was amazing. They taste so much better than the cultivated varieties, which have always been bland and rather chalky to me. These are sweet, mellow and with subtle tropical flavors: guava, mango, peach and banana, maybe. They're hard to describe. 

These are actually somewhat underripe, and leave a tang on the tongue. I'll be harvesting more this coming weekend, and see if that astringency goes away. Still they are very very tasty. 

But if you're in North Texas, they are coming into season for you right now, so I'll show you what to look for.

Mostly unripe, but very abundant

Identifying Virginian persimmon: Diospyros virginiana*
Persimmons are very easy to ID, definitely a fruit that I would recommend to beginners, and one I would say you don't need to observe for a full year before consuming. If you find them, and they're ripe, follow this guide and give them a go!

ID images (left to right): textured grey bark, small twigs have a reddish hue and fruit has a calyx, and leaves.
Top leaf shows an "acute" tapper to tip, bottom shows an "acuminate" tip
  1. Diospyros virginiana is a small tree, with maximum height generally no more than 40, and often much shorter. The trunk is slender, is no more than 15" in diameter, more often around half that. 
  2. The bark has a definitively greyish hue, I would even say that it has a bit of lavender mixed in. The slim twigs that the fruit grows on are reddish brown. The main trunk has a lot of squared texture, like charcoal brickettes. 
  3. The leaves are oval, and they end either in an "acute" or "acuminate" tip. This means that they either gradually taper to a point or they have a have a sharp point at the end (like this one shown above). Basically, you're leaf edges should come to a point, and not be rounded.
  4. The leaves have "pinnate" venation. That means they have one large, central vein (called a midrib), and smaller veins come off that one and go out towards the edges. Those smaller veins may also branch as they approach the leaf edge.
  5. Leaf edges are smooth, they don't have serrations (serrations are like the edge of a saw).
  6. The fruit is small, no larger than about 2.5" in diameter, usually smaller. It's green or yellow when underripe, peach or light orange when semi-ripe (like these) and bright orange when fully ripe. 
    The calyx, residual petals from the flower, is at the top of each fruit.
    It will have 3-4 petals, and is one of the most important identification features.
  7. Each fruit has a "calyx" at the top. At first I thought these were leaves, but they are actually remnants of the original flower. The calyx is 3-4 petals, which are very nearly circular, but have distinct points at the end of each circle. This calyx is one of the most important distinguishing features of persimmon.
    The "nubbin" at the bottom of the fruit is another key identifier. 
  8. Each fruit terminates in a little dark nubbin. I don't know what this is called, but I assume it's also left over from the flower. It's bitter tasting, so avoid it when eating, and cut it out when cooking.
  9. Each fruit has several large, oval shaped seeds. Wikipedia lists the fruit as having 1-8, but I've only ever encountered 5+. The seeds grow vertically in the fruit, in roughly a star pattern. Persimmons are apparently technically berries. 

Where to find them
Diospyros virginiana can be found from southern New England all the way down to Florida. They grow from the east coast west till about the Dallas area of Texas, and mid-way through Oklahoma. Personally, I never saw them while I lived in CT or NJ, but I have seen them near my parent's home in central VA. And of course, here in Texas.

Most everything I've read online says to wait until after the first frost to harvest Virginian persimmons. Well, in Texas that might not be the case. We didn't have a frost at all last year, but I did wait till mid-November to try and harvest, and they were long gone. 

It seems like, if you find them full-sized but green and hard, you are looking at 4-6 weeks till they ripen, but I would check back at half that. When they are pale yellow, I think they are 2 weeks out, and bright yellow is about a week out. 

As they ripen they will turn orange, then blush, and eventually bright orange. They never get quite as red-orange as the commercial varieties. Perhaps better than color is touch. Ripe they should be very yielding to a gentle squeeze. Anything hard at all, and they won't be edible.

Underripe: it's yellow and firm to the touch.

Transport and storage

Cultivated persimmons are specially bred to have thicker skins, and be less susceptible to damage in transport. Even so, they are prone to bruising. Wild persimmons are very, very prone to damage. They have the thinnest skins of any wild fruit I've picked, simply rubbing against each other in your bag can cause them to peel. Bumping against a water bottle in your backpack will definitely bruise them. If they rest on top of one another, they will crush the fruit beneath them. Not taking the utmost care will have you coming home with a bag of persimmon paste. 
If you have the time, I think the best storage solution would be several egg cartons, preferably the paperboard or styrofoam, rather than the plastic, varieties. Store each fruit individually in an egg slot. then you can stack the cartons in your bag. Of course, this takes time, and you have to have a lot of egg cartons. 

As a second choice, I would use the plastic containers you get berries in, or plastic tupperware. Don't stack the persimmons more than one deep, so they don't crush each other. If you stack these plastic containers in your bag, just be careful when setting the bag down, you don't want to jostle the fruit and bruise it. 

Store them in your refrigerator, but they taste best if you let them come to room temp before consuming.  I also know that canners can can them, but I don't can, so you would want to check with another source.

I hope to try some experiments with drying them as well. 

Persimmons are a native plant, and a food source for local wildlife. Unlike the invasive species often covered on this site, we definitely want to maintain a wild population of Diospyros virginiana. 

Persimmons are a fruit, and in nature, fruit is meant to be attractive to animals (and people) so that it will be picked and it's seeds dispersed. So as long as you are careful, you can eat plenty of persimmon without fear of damaging the tree. When harvesting, make sure you don't climb the tree. Even a large persimmon is too slender, and it's are prone to snapping. Also don't bend the branches too far--persimmon has a very dense wood, which isn't overly flexible. 

If you eat the fruit while hiking, drop the seeds where they are likely to germinate, or take them home to plant on your own land. The persimmon is covered in tiny white blossoms in the spring, like snow, and brilliant foliage, making it an attractive tree to have in your landscape. However, you will need several (to ensure both a male and a female) to produce fruit. 

When I see plenty of untouched fruit - of whatever kind I'm foraging - on the ground,
I know that there is enough for the wildlife

Don't over-harvest. Generally, by simply leaving what's out of my reach, I ensure that there will be plenty to fall to the ground as food for the animals. But it can be tempting to take a lot from a short tree. 

*As always you should never accept anything you read on the internet without verifying it for yourself with either a local expert or several publications. Colors can vary from monitor to monitor, and images are not as clear as in printed materials. Personally, before I eat anything I verify it with at least 3 reliable sources. I have found this to be a remarkably good way of ensuring my safety when foraging. Please read the complete disclaimer.


  1. oh THAT'S what they were. when i was younger me and my friend(s) would take walks down this old dirt path (that has now developed into a road and that tree was bulldozed) and every fall without fail we would find splattered persimmons beneath the tree. It was surprisingly tall, about the size of a small oak tree, and nobody knew how to climb a tree. we tried some of the whole fruit that had fallen, but they were usually unripe since the ripe ones splattered upon impact with the ground and nobody wants to eat that. we called them mini pumpkins because that's what they looked like, except squishier. that tree's life only overlapped with mine for about two years or so, and then the companies started developing and destroyed the tree and the dirt path. anyways, this was neat!

  2. Helpful - thank you!