National Geographic : 1951 Sep
Even a Sour Persimmon Can Be Sweetened IN the South, small children sometimes dare one another to bite into a green persim mon. The one foolish enough to accept the challenge undergoes a form of torture which cannot be adequately described. One suf ferer put it this way: "Your mouth feels as if it's trying to turn itself inside out. It's not exactly sour, but it's puckery." Two species of persimmon are commonly grown in the United States, one native, one imported from the Orient. Most varieties contain measurable quantities of an acid called tannin which, when the fruit is green, produces the mouth-twisting effect for which the persimmon is famous. The Oriental persimmon, Diospyros kaki, is one of the popular fruits of subtropical Oriental countries. Hundreds of varieties are known in the southern islands of Japan and in the south-central part of eastern China. The species is not definitely known in the wild. It evidently originated in the south ern part of China, possibly from an amal gamation of native species. That area has been so little explored by western botanists that the origin of the cultivated form is uncertain. The kaki, as it is known in Japan, is a truly subtropical fruit. It is not well adapted in the Tropics, nor will it endure winter tem peratures below about 100 F. Trees grow up to 40 feet high and, like native American persimmons, are usually dioecious-that is, a single tree bears only female, or pistillate, flowers, or only male, or staminate, flowers. Both kinds must be present in a planting for satisfactory fruit production. To Sweeten, Cover and Seal Tightly Some varieties of Oriental persimmons are astringent and puckery until dead ripe, like our native kinds; others are mild flavored. The tannin which causes the astringency can be rendered tasteless by sealing the fruit in tight containers for several days. In the Orient, the fruit is often placed in tubs from which saki (rice beer) has been removed, and the tubs tightly covered. The presence of alcohol was long believed helpful in remov ing the astringency, but apparently is not necessary. From Japan and China, the Oriental per simmon has gone around the world, but its popularity in other countries has been limited. It reached France early in the past century, but seems not to have arrived in the United States until after Admiral Perry visited Japan in 1853. It was about 1870 that grafted trees of the better varieties were introduced, largely through the efforts of plant explorers of the United States Department of Agri culture. During the early years of the 20th cen tury, there was wide interest in these fruits throughout the southern States, particularly Louisiana and Florida, and in California. In many cases production was poor because of failure to provide pollinating trees. Also, in spite of its good qualities, the fruit was un known on American markets and did not find a ready demand. The abundance of fruits on our markets makes the introduction of a new and little-known kind difficult. To day persimmons enjoy a steady but moderate sale. Through a large area of the South they are especially valuable for home gardens and local markets. The trees bloom very late, and blossoms are rarely destroyed by spring frosts. The American persimmon, D. virginiana, is a fairly abundant tree throughout the south east quarter of the country. It occurs most frequently from central Kansas and Nebraska eastward to Maryland, Virginia, and the Caro linas. A few trees are found as far north as southern New England and Michigan. "Delicious as an Apricock" The native persimmon impressed early ex plorers and settlers as a promising and valu able fruit. Capt. John Smith wrote soon after settling at Jamestown: "Plumbs there are of 3 sorts. The red and white are like our hedge plumbs: but the other which they call Putchamis grow as high as a palmeta. The fruit is like a medlar; it is first green, then yellow and red when it is ripe: if it is not ripe it will drive a mans mouth awrie with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricock." Even more than the Orientals, the native persimmon must be dead ripe to be eaten without causing puckering. Only sporadic attempts have been made to improve the native persimmon. Trees bearing superior fruit have been selected from the wild. During the 19th century, a good many gardeners collected persimmon trees; the poet William Cullen Bryant was an ardent persimmon enthusiast. Improvement, however, has never gone further than this selection of wild trees. The work that has been done in breeding blue berries indicates what could be accomplished by similar work with the persimmon. If the native variety could be successfully crossed with the Oriental, the possibilities of improve ment would be enormous. In the meantime, persimmon lovers will continue to seek out native trees in the late fall, shake down the dead-ripe fruit, and eat it out of hand or take it home for the prepa ration of persimmon pudding, persimmon cake, or other culinary delights.