Wild Persimmons

A good hard freeze is typically needed to soften and sweeten wild persimmons. BARRY FUGATT/for the Tulsa World

I would like to think that I have nothing in common with an opossum. But in fact, I do. We both love persimmons.

Lots of folklore surrounds our native persimmon. An Ozark legend suggests that one can predict the severity of an approaching winter by inspecting persimmon seeds. Seeds are cut lengthwise to reveal the embryo. If the embryo is shaped like a knife, it will be a bitterly cold winter. If the embryo is spoon-shaped, expect lots of snow. If it’s fork-shaped, expect a normal winter.

In the interest of science, I dissected several persimmon seeds collected from a delightful little tree located near 91st Street and Harvard Avenue. I’m happy to report that all the seeds looked fork-shaped to me. Hopefully, we’re in for a mild winter. But I wouldn’t count on it.

You can count on this, however. There is no fruit on Earth more astringent than an unripe persimmon. Typically, a good hard freeze is needed to soften and sweeten wild persimmons.

Captain John Cook, founder of the 1607 Jamestown Colony in Virginia, wrote in his journal: “If it (persimmon) be not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awry with much torment. When it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot.”

Getting a gullible kid, or adult, to bite into a green persimmon was a common prank among Southern youth when I was growing up. I brought a pocket full of unripe persimmons to a Methodist Sunday school class when I was a boy.

Our teacher, a middle-age Yankee transplant fresh out of divinity school, didn’t know a persimmon from a banana. He was a handsome well-spoken fellow, always fastidiously dressed and well perfumed. His pale hands, manicured fingers and absence of red coloration on the back of his neck suggested that he was not well acquainted with manual labor under a hot Louisiana sun.

When the good parson bit into the unripe fruit, his face turned three shades of red as he bolted from the classroom swearing all sorts of un-Christian rhetoric. My buddies and I took a vote and concluded that Yankee men-of-the-cloth have a poorly developed sense of humor.

American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is often overlooked as a small landscape tree. It has a handsome shape, it only grows 15 to 20 feet in height, and its bright reddish-orange fall foliage is a delight to behold.

Over the years, horticulturists have selected a number of superior persimmon varieties with slightly larger and sweeter fruit. Unfortunately, one rarely finds American persimmons at local garden centers. However, improved persimmon varieties are available online. TyTy Nursery in Georgia is a reliable mail-order source.

Oriental persimmon (D. kiki) is another option for local gardeners. Oriental persimmons, Japan’s national fruit, produce much larger fruit than their American cousins. The big orange persimmons commonly seen in local supermarkets typically are Oriental varieties. Oriental persimmon varieties also are available online. Fuyu and Hachiya are my favorite varieties.

A potential downside to growing Oriental persimmons is cold hardiness. Plants may be damaged or killed if the temperature drops much below 10 degrees.

Diospyros, the Greek genus name for persimmon, means “food for the gods.” On that, opossums and I hardily agree.

Barry Fugatt is director of horticulture at the Tulsa Garden Center and Linnaeus Teaching Garden. He can be reached at 918-746-5137. Email: bfugatt@tulsagardencenter.com