Persimmon – November 2017 Wildflower of the Month

Persimmon PMPersimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a beautiful native tree that produces luscious fruit and yellow, red or purple leaves in the fall. With its dark-colored bark, cut into little blocks, Persimmon is easy to recognize while walking woodland trails. Flowering Dogwood also has blocky bark, but the branches form twigs that are opposite each other – Persimmon has alternate branching. And no one would mistake the leaves and fruits of Dogwood for that of Persimmon.

Persimmon leaves are shiny, dark green in spring, turning vivid yellow, red, and purple in the fall, usually with black spots. The leaves can be mistaken for those of other nearby trees, but the edges are smooth, without teeth, and they arranged alternately on the stems. A medium-sized tree with a somewhat irregular shape, it thrives in full sun or part shade, and tolerates any kind of soil from low, swampy sites to upland dry woods.

Tiny white urn-shaped flowers appear from May through June, hidden among the leaves. Male and female flowers are on separate trees, and while female trees are necessary for fruit production, immature trees or those in poor growing conditions will have low fruit set. Unripe fruit is highly astringent due to tannins which have a drying effect on tissues. After a frost the fruit becomes soft, fleshy and delicious, with a custard-like flavor of mangoes and banana.

Cultivars of American Persimmon in the nursery trade modify the fruit qualities, fall leaf color and growth rate.  Seeds of an oriental persimmon reached this country in 1856, sent from Japan by Commodore Perry. Cultivars were collected in China and are now are widely distributed throughout the southern states.

The wood is hard, smooth and even-textured, resembling ebony that comes from relatives in the tropics, eg, Diospyros ebenum. The wood has been used commercially for golf club heads and textile shuttles. Fruits feed many birds and mammals, from songbirds to turkeys, dogs and deer, which help disperse the seeds.

Photo: Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) taken by Phillip Merritt
By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS