Complete Guide To American Persimmon – What You NEED To Know


The Persimmon tree is a deciduous hardwood native to North America. Scientifically known as Diospyros virginiana, it will grow 35-60′ tall in full sun, and produce edible fruits in Autumn. Valuable to humans and animals alike, the ripe fruit is loved by deer, fox, woodpeckers, turkey, and other animals, while unripe fruit is very bitter and astringent.

Often grown ornamentally, the Persimmon makes a beautifully shaped tree that can act as a shade tree, but still bring in interesting wildlife.

In this article:

What is American Persimmon

The Persimmon Tree is a native fruit-bearing tree that grows wild in the Southeastern United States. The fruits have historically used for food, and inner bark used medicinally by first the Native Americans and then early American settlers.

Commonly used as an ornamental within it’s native range, it is very adaptable in growing conditions and soil textures. In optimum conditions, it can reach 60′ tall, but it will take a long time, as the Persimmon tree is classified as a slow grower, adding roughly 1′ per year depending on conditions.

The fruit is smaller than the Asian Persimmon (Diospyros kaki). And to those who have tried both, most seem to swear that the American Persimmon tastes better, almost indescribably better. But – you’ve got to get them when they are ripe!

Edible fruit

The ripe fruit of Persimmon is edible and delicious. But be aware, it may look and feel ripe, and if it is it will taste very nice. But if it is premature, you will know it almost immediately. It will make your face pucker-up and your mouth instantly dry!

Unripe Persimmons are what is known as an astringent, which means “contracting or drawing together of tissues“. Astringents, or astringency is caused by tannins in the fruit, particularly in the skin. During the ripening process these tannins deteriorate, making the fruit palatable and delicious.

Making sure it’s ripe

Only pick fruit that has naturally fallen to the ground (not from a storm). It should be very soft (almost mushy), so soft that you almost think it’s over-ripe. And, this usually occurs after your area will receive a hard frost.

I can relay my first experience with the fruit here. I had heard of several mature Persimmon trees at a local state park (where it’s legal to forage), so I grabbed my son and off we went. We located the trees, (this was October) and they were loaded with fruit. I found numerous 1″ diameter fruits on the ground, some attached to twigs. I figured their presence on the ground meant they fell naturally and were ripe, not realizing they had likely been dislodged from a recent storm, meaning they were actually unripe.

They had a deep orange color, and were fairly soft, similar to a ripe peach or orange. I naively bit into it, excited for my first taste of Persimmon fruit. About half a second later, my entire mouth felt completely dry, and my lips puckered up!

This is the unripe Persimmon I bit into…..lesson learned! You can see the large seed inside.

But, I wanted to save some seed and grow the tree. So I left the unripe Persimmons on my kitchen counter for several weeks. And in that time they started to dry out and got very soft. And they were actually ripening (unbeknownst to me). When I went to cut them open to get the seeds, I tasted the fruit again, and was amazed. These fruits, which tasted terrible just a few weeks ago were now sweet and delicious. So, this goes to show, all good things to those who wait (or ripen)!

Growth Rate

The growth rate of Persimmon trees is classified by the USDA as slow. Up to 1′ per year in optimum conditions.

Native Range of Persimmon

The Native Range of the Persimmon Tree is primarily the Southeast United States, from Eastern Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas to Florida. Then extending North to the lower half of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania. And large sections of New Jersey as well. Small, isolated populations have been found in Iowa, New York, and Massachusetts. [1]

Native Range of American Persimmon Tree. References [1][2][3]

Common Persimmon has a cold tolerance to USDA hardiness zone 4, and can be grown outside of it’s native range for fruit production. In fact, there are orchards in the Pacific Northwest and California who do grow American Persimmon trees.

Persimmon Tree quick reference table

Scientific or Latin NameDiospyros virginiana L.
Common Name(s)Persimmon, American Persimmon, Bara-bara, Boa-wood, Butterwood, Cylil Date Plum, Common Persimmon, Possumwood, Florida Persimmon, Virginia Date Palm, White ebony
Native Range, USDA ZoneEastern United States. USDA Hardiness Zone 4-9
Bloom TimeSpring
Bloom Duration, Color1-2 weeks, Red to yellow
Height35′-60′ (10-18m)
Spacing / Spread25-35′ (7-10m)
Growth Rateup to 12″ per year
Lifespan150 years
Light RequirementsFull sun to part shade
Soil TypesAdaptable – Sandy, loam, silt, rocky, and clay loam
MoistureMoist to dry
Fauna Associations / Larval HostsBees, flies, beetles, birds, forage for deer/elk/rabbit. Hosts two moths.
References [1][2][3]

Persimmon Facts

  • Common Persimmon is a member of the Ebony tree family, and the heartwood is a dark brown, almost black color.
  • Persimmons are juglone tolerant, and can grow near Black Walnut trees.
  • Animals love the fruit. Black bears are reported to climb the trees to gain access. And opossums are so fond of the fruit that it gave rise to another common name, “Possumwood”.
  • Persimmons were widely used by Native American tribes for food and medicine
  • Early settlers used Persimmon for food as well as making alcohol. Persimmon Wine, brandy, and beer were all brewed and loved. [5][6]
  • During the American Civil War, Persimmon seeds were used as buttons by the South.
  • Persimmon seeds were also toasted and ground to use as a coffee substitute [5]
  • Ink can be made from green unripe Persimmon fruits
  • Persimmon lumber is very hard and durable. It was used for making handplanes, shoe lasts, shuttle cocks (textile machinery). The main limiting factor was availability of large trees.

What are the Benefits of Persimmon

Beauty

A beautiful tree for the yard, he Persimmon makes a handsome ovoid crown when fully grown in the open and has lush foliage that is rarely bothered by insects. The fruit is attractive and present on the trees for many months in the year, and the bark is handsome and interesting during the Winter months.

Food

The fruit, if allowed to fully ripen yield a sweet flavor, similar to a date. They can be used in a variety of ways such as breads, cakes, pudding, wine or even beer!

Wildlife

Many wildlife make use of the Persimmon tree. Numerous pollinators feed on the nectar and pollen of the flowers, while several moths are hosted and their caterpillars feed on the leaves. Many animals also enjoy the fruit in the Winter such as deer, fox, and raccoons. While birds such as quail, Waxwings, Woodpeckers, and Turkey all eat the fruit as well.

Identification and Characteristics of Persimmon

Trunk/Bark

The trunk of mature Persimmons can reach 2′ diameter (60 cm), but rarely grow larger than 1′ diameter (30 cm). The crown will often be ovoid or oblong when grown in the open.

Several mature Persimmon trees. Note the ovoid crowns.

The bark of mature Persimmon trees is incredibly identifiable and distinct. It is a dark black-gray color is a checkerboard pattern of square / trapezoid shapes with deep furrows dividing the pieces. This allows one to identify the tree in Winter, with certainty if fruits are on the ground or still in the tree.

The bark of a mature American Persimmon tree with some Poison Ivy climbing it

Still, there are other trees in which the bark has a similar resemblance to Persimmon. Black Gum trees bark do closely resemble Persimmon bark, and they can inhabit similar environments.

Bark of a young or immature Persimmon tree

Leaf

Persimmon trees produce alternate leaves 2-6″ long by 1-2″ wide with an ovate to elliptic-oblong shape with smooth margins on short stems (petioles) up to 1″ long. The upper side of the leaves are medium green while the underside is a light green, and smooth.

American Persimmon leaves

Persimmon Fall Colors

In Autumn Persimmon leaves turn a golden yellow color and are quite attractive.

Persimmon leaves in the Fall. Credit – Gphoto. CC BY-SA 3.0

Flower

The Persimmon trees will either be male or female, and producing only flowers of that sex. So, if you are interested in growing trees for fruit production, either make sure they are female, or if starting from seed, make sure you grow 4-5 specimens.

But Persimmon trees will produce small tubular flowers in cymes (groups) of 2 or 3 blooms. Male flowers are 5/16″ (8mm) long with 4-5 lobes that curve back, giving it a bell-like appearance, and 10-15 stamens. Female flowers are longer at 11/16″ (16 mm), but has similar lobes.

Persimmon flower in Spring. Credit – Rasbak / CC BY-SA 3.0

Persimmon fruit

The somewhat inconspicuous flowers of Persimmon bloom in late Spring for 2-4 weeks. Successfully pollinated female flowers will form fruits that are 1-2″ diameter and round, and a light orange color when ripe. Each fruit will contain 3-7 large flat seeds.

American Persimmons are typically 1-2″ diameter. (2-5 cm)

Harvest Persimmon fruit after they fall naturally to the ground and are quite soft and mushy. If you pick Persimmons directly from the tree, you should plan on leaving them out to ripen until they become soft/mushy.

Root

Persimmon trees produce a deep taproot. This helps the tree grow in moist and even dry environments, by being able to access deeper ground water.

Grow and Care for Persimmon

Sunlight Requirements

For sunlight requirements, Persimmon will grow best in full sun, which is at least six hours of direct unfiltered sunlight per day. The more sun the tree receives, the more fruit it will produce and the faster it will grow. It can grow in partial sun, which is four to six hours of sun per day, but it will have a slower growth rate and produce less fruit.

Persimmon are ‘pioneer’ species in forests in that they can grow up early, but eventually will die out from taller trees shading them out such as Walnut, Maple or Oak.

Soil Requirements

For soil requirements, American Persimmon trees can grow in nearly any soil texture, from sandy or rocky soil to silt and even clay-loam.

Moisture Requirements

When it comes to moisture Persimmon can grow on dry soils to moist river bottoms and even the side of rocky Appalachian Mountains. It is extremely versatile in this regard.

Maintenance

Persimmons may self seed to some degree. In a home landscaping situation this generally isn’t a problem as they can simply be mowed. But in a mulched flower bed the seedlings should be pulled soon after being noticed. And one should use a weeding tool, as they quickly develop a tap-root.

Pruning Persimmon trees should be done in late in Winter, after the typical coldest parts have occurred. In this way there will be no insect activity, and the tree will have time to form a scab or wound wood before insects can land on an open wound. This is important, as insects are often the primary vector of most tree diseases.

Fertilizer

Persimmon should not require any supplemental fertilizer. You can top-dress the base with compost in Spring and Fall, but this is not required.

How to Grow Persimmon from Seed

Persimmon seeds need to experience a cold moist stratification period of 60-90 days to break dormancy. This can be done in the fridge, as long as you make sure your paper towel doesn’t dry out. Otherwise, one should Winter Sow the seed. The seed should also be soaked in water 2-3 days prior to planting. Persimmon seeds should be planted about 3/8-1/2″ deep (9-13 mm). [1][7]

American Persimmon seeds.

Seed germinates one month after soil temperatures are above 60F. So, like Pawpaw, one must be patient for Persimmon seeds to germinate! [1]

Persimmon age to fruit

Per the USDA, in optimum conditions some Persimmon trees can bear fruit “in as little as 10 years”. [1] But the best fruit production takes place between 25-50 years of the tree’s life. And you can expect a good or bumper fruit crop every second year. [3]

Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Persimmon

Pollinators

The Persimmon flowers are primarily pollinated by long-tongue bees such as Bumble and leaf-cutters, although bumblebees were the most frequent. Although Charles Robertson did also observe short-tongued bees visit the flowers to a lesser degree. [8] Honeybees also will use Persimmon flowers in the production of honey. [1]

Persimmon hosts caterpillars of the Persimmon Borer moth, Small Necklace moth, nad the Persimmon Leaf-Roller Moth.

Animal associations

Many animals enjoy the fruit of the Persimmon tree. Black bear, deer, fox, opossum, and raccoons all will forage on fruit. Birds also enjoy the fruit such as Bobwhite Quail, Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, Mockingbird, Pileated Woodpecker, and Turkey. [1][5]

Pileated woodpeckers will enjoy the fruit

All of these birds and animals help spread Persimmon seed.

Deer and rabbits

Deer will browse new and young growth of Persimmon trees. Rabbits may cause damage to bark in Winter during heavy snows.

Pests

Several types of wood-boring beetles feed on the wood. Most of these insects do no serious harm to the tree. Examples would include long-horned and metallic wood-boring beetles. The Persimmon Borer (Sannina uroceriformis) will bore/tunnel into taproots and stems of young trees. Look for small piles of wood dust at the base of the trees during the growing season, as this is an indication of a wood boring beetle.

Webworms (Seiarctica echo) and the Hickory Horned Devil (Citheronia regalis) may completely defoliate trees in Summer. These should be sprayed, as they can significantly harm young trees. [1]

Diseases

A serious disease, Persimmon Wilt is caused by Cephalosporium diospyri. The main symptoms of this fungus will be a sudden onset of all leaves wilting, followed by the leaves/limbs dying from the top down. There is no cure for the disease, and the tree generally dies within a year or two after onset of symptoms.[1][9]

Open wounds are necessary for this disease to enter the tree. The primary insect vectors are the Hickory Twig Girdler or Powderpost Beetle. This is another reason to not prune trees when insects are active!

If this disease occurs, the USDA recommends that you cut up and burn the tree. Once the tree actually dies, spores will be produced in huge quantities, potentially putting other trees at risk. [3][4]

There are a number of other pathogens that can infect Persimmon trees, but like most pathogens, they require an open wound to enter the tree. [9] So, only prune during late Winter to avoid insects spreading disease.

Black Spots on Persimmon leaves

Although not common, Persimmon can be effected by Leaf spot, or anthracnose. The cause is a fungus, colletotrichum. The symptom will be dark or black spots on leaves, and you also may have leaves drop from the tree earlier than normal. The effects are only cosmetic, and not fatal. To treat the black spots, you can use a pesticide called Bordeaux mix. [3]

Where you can buy Persimmon

American Persimmons are often sold at specialty nurseries. And they do carry ‘persimmon’ trees at some big box stores, but one must be careful and check the label for the Latin name, Diospyros virginiana L., to ensure you are getting an American Persimmon with it’s unique tasting fruit.

Also note, there are some grafted self-fruiting Persimmons available at nurseries. This occurs when they graft female and male trees on a single root stock, and thus it can self-pollinate. They seem to sell out quickly though, so inquire early!

Where to buy seeds

Persimmon seeds are a bit more difficult to germinate. However, this primarily comes from the fact that the seeds cannot dry out. So, it is harder for companies to stock the seed. That being said, there are various sources to purchase the seed online. One just needs to exercise caution when purchasing the seed direct from Amazon or Etsy sellers, and should inquire as to how they were stored as well as the botanical name of the plant.

Uses of Persimmon

Culinary uses of Persimmon Fruit

The edible fruit of the Persimmon Tree is used in baked goods such as breads, muffins, and cakes. It has also been used to make desserts such as fudge, ice cream, and pudding. And early settlers in Pennsylvania made wine, while those in Virginia made Persimmon brandy or beer. [6][10][11]

How to determine if the Persimmon fruit is ripe

A ripe Persimmon will be extremely soft, almost mushy. Persimmons take a long time to ripen compared to most fruits. Historically, the general practice is to only gather Persimmons from the ground after a hard frost. Once that occurs the tannins are reduced, making the fruit palatable. [5]

You can always take a small bite of the fruit to test the ripeness. And if they seem a bit bitter, then simply leave them on a kitchen counter to naturally ripen a bit longer.

Garden Uses

The Persimmon tree is frequently used in ornamental landscaping. This is mainly due to the foliage generally looking good as it is avoided by most insects, and how adaptable it is to a variety of soils and growing conditions. The leaves and fruit of Persimmon trees give it an attractive appearance for most of the growing season.

An American Persimmon planted as an ornamental tree in a residential yard.

But Persimmon can also be used as a shade tree, specimen, or planted at the back edge of a forest (with sun exposure) to attract wildlife.

Companion Plants

Some of the more common companion trees that frequently grow naturally with Persimmon are elm, Eastern Redcedar, Shagbark Hickory, Red Maple, and various Oaks. Some shrubs that frequently grow near Persimmons would include dogwood, Hawthorn, Spicebush, and Sumac. Given enough time, the Persimmons will be overtaken by the taller hardwoods as the forest matures.

Using Persimmon for food plots

Deer hunters have long known how much deer enjoy eating the Persimmon fruit, and growing them on the periphery of a food plot can be a great way to attract more deer for hunting.

Persimmon lumber

Sapwood was preferred for woodworking. Heartwood is very dark (Persimmon is a member of the Ebony family), but unfortunately experiences much checking during drying (cracks). [1] Historically Persimmon lumber was used for cobbler shoe models, golf club heads, handplane stocks, and textile machinery (shuttles). [1][12]

Medicinal Uses

Early settlers would use unripe fruit to make a pudding or gruel, which they used to treat diarrhea or dysentery. They also would make a tea from the inner bark to treat sore throat, fever, or hemorrhage [1] [food]. Inner bark was also used to treat dropsy, hemorrhoids, and various venereal diseases. Ripe Persimmon fruits were used as an antiseptic although it was reported to cause pain. [5]

Native Americans used the tree medicinally. There are 17 uses documented by four Tribes. Some examples include using syrup from fruits to treat sore throats, an infusion of bark was used for bile/liver, a compound infusion was used for toothache. [13]

Final Thoughts

The Persimmon is a a beautiful native tree with high wildlife value that provides year round interest from it’s flowers, foliage, fruit, and bark. The fruits it produces are very delicious when ripe, and can be used in a variety of ways. Since trees are either male or female, I hope to add several specimens to my home so that I can be treated to the fruit, as I am a big fan of growing your own food, and prefer to use native plants to do so whenever possible.

Find more native plants here

References:

[1] – Halls, Lowell K. “Diospyros virginiana L. common persimmon.” Agriculture Handbook 2.654 (1949): 294.

[2] – Common Persimmon, USDA NRCS. Accessed 23DEC2022

[3]- USDA NRCS, COMMON PERSIMMON Diospyros virginiana L Plant Guide.

[4] – Maisenhelder, Louis Carl. “Common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).” (1971).

[5] -Briand, C. H. “The common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana L.): The history of an underutilized fruit tree (16th–19th centuries).” Huntia 12.1 (2005): 71-89.

[6] – Nordahl, Darrin. Eating Appalachia: Rediscovering Regional American Flavors. Chicago Review Press, 2015.

[7] – Cypher, Brian L., and Ellen A. Cypher. “Germination rates of tree seeds ingested by coyotes and raccoons.” The American Midland Naturalist 142.1 (1999): 71-76.

[8] – Robertson, Charles. “Flowers and insects; lists of visitors of four hundred and fifty-three flowers.” (1928).

[9] – Ogawa, Joseph M., and Harley English. Diseases of temperate zone tree fruit and nut crops. Vol. 3345. UCANR Publications, 1987. Accessed 26DEC2022.

[10] – Yepsen, Roger B. “Trees for the yard, orchard, and woodlot. Propagation, pruning, landscaping, orcharding, sugaring, woodlot management, traditional uses.” (1976).

[11] – Sokolov, Raymond A. Fading Feast: A Compendium of Disappearing American Regional Foods. Vol. 75. David R. Godine Publisher, 1998.

[12] – Hoadley, R. Bruce. A field guide to identifying woods in American antiques & collectibles, Newtown, CT : Taunton Press, 2016, pp.245

[13] – North American Ethnobotany Database. Diospyros virginiana L. Accessed 24DEC2022.

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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