Keep your pumpkin spice, I’ll have my Diospyros virginiana. The common American persimmon. Do I want the smell hanging out in every room like a fog, and disguising my morning caffeinated lifeline with its Fall flavor? No, but this self-proclaimed tree-hugger smiles to herself when she sees those signs of Fall and all the nostalgia they bring.
This story came about after a dive down the rabbit hole of a social media post about the largest Cypress tree in the state, which had a link to the Champion Tree list for Arkansas, which brought me to search for our county, Pope. While Pope has a few trees massive enough to make the list, the American persimmon caught my eye, made my mouth immediately draw up, and ultimately ended in a grin brought on by a memory of my first persimmon enlightenment.
Champion Tree List
The Arkansas Champion Tree list is maintained by the Department of Agriculture and lists the largest trees of each species in the state and each’s location. Trees are measured in three areas: trunk circumference, height and average crown spread.
Harold Fisher, Urban Forestry Partnership Coordinator for the Forestry Division of the Department of Agriculture, travels throughout the state to measure submitted candidates and update the list as new champions arise.
The current state champion common persimmon tree overtook its predecessor of the list on July 13, 2022. It is 66 feet tall and located at the entrance to Taylor Oil in Russellville. Fisher estimates it to be 100-130 years old, depending on weather and soil conditions through the years of its life. He said he knew at first sight that this persimmon tree would be the new champion of its kind.
The persimmon is one of the first trees I remember learning to identify through a most unpleasant experience. At the age of four or so, I was taught a lesson I have never forgotten: Grandpa had a mischievous side. I followed him daily through his outdoor tasks, as no one else had the patience to teach a constantly-questioning four-year-old about gardening and fishing, and on that particular day, green persimmons.
I found a persimmon on the ground and inquired about it, probably the hundredth question I’d asked so far that morning. He told me how good they were, took if from my hand, wiped it off on his shirt and offered it to me with a barely-contained chuckle. With all of the trust of a child, I bit into it that hot summer morning. Having experienced the summer fruits of peaches and plums, the knowledge of this fall fruit was unchartered territory for me.
In all its August greenness, palatable it is not. My mouth contorted into a shape I can only imagine, and to this day, with the memory, I can still taste what I now know is tannin. No amount of water, only time, can wash the bitterness away. It took at least two decades and three months for me to try another in its coral-orange mushy state of over-ripeness. I wasn’t taking any chances.
Some describe the taste of ripe persimmons as similar to an apricot. I will neither confirm nor deny, as my extent of knowledge of an apricot is when I thought I was getting peach cobbler from the buffet, and it turned out to be apricot. Apricot is always a disappointment when you think it is going to be peach.
Persimmons being native to the majority of the East Coast and as far west as Kansas and Texas, they were widely consumed by Native Americans, who used them in soups and breads, as well as the bark and leaves for medicinal purposes. Recipes can be found in abundance online, particularly for persimmon bread.
The seeds of the persimmon predict the coming winter, according to folklore some say began in the hills of Arkansas. Split the seed in half, and if the middle is a fork (it looks more like a spork to me) the winter will be mild. If it is a spoon, you’ll be shoveling an excessive amount of snow, and if it’s a knife, expect cold that cuts like a knife. A hint when splitting seeds: pliers make the job easier and safer than a knife, just take time to not crumble the seed.
When my son was in third grade, I gathered enough whole persimmons between the tall tree at my parents’ home where I had to wait for them to fall, and the one that hung over the fence at the farm where I had to get to them before the cows could reach them, to take to his class. Each student could try his or her own persimmon and harvest the seeds for Mrs. Dunlap to split open and create a graph predicting the weather. There was an abundance of seeds and an abundance of shovels, so the graph was a bit less educational than planned.
Was the prediction accurate? I’ll let you perform your own study, but it’s a great reason to get out, find a persimmon tree and spend some time with a child, while keeping a bit of fun folklore alive. Just remember, or conveniently forget if you have a mischievous streak, that they don’t ripen until after the first frost.
Find the Champion Tree List at the Arkansas Department of Agriculture’s website.