By Patricia Drackett, Director, The Crosby Arboretum/MSU Extension Service
The Picayune Item
As a child, were you ever offered a green persimmon to bite by a friend who looked like they were trying very hard not to smile? If you followed through on their suggestion, chances are you never made this same mistake again. Unsuspecting victims of this common childhood prank learned through experience about how incredibly astringent unripe persimmon fruit are.
American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), also called common persimmon, is a deciduous native tree that grows 40 to 50 feet in height but is typically only half this size. It is found throughout the southeastern United States. This tree can be identified by its characteristic dark “blocky” bark. Persimmon is in the ebony family, and from this you might rightly surmise that its wood is very dense. It is famous for its use in making golf club heads (much more popular in days gone by), and is also used to flavor meats by smoking.
The fruit is delicious and sweet when ripe, and enjoyed by humans as well as wildlife. It is also high in nutrients, including potassium. Have you ever had persimmon bread, pudding, or jam? If you have an ancient applesauce strainer tucked away in a cabinet, this piece of equipment also works fine to separate the persimmon pulp from the fruit. The pulp will freeze quite well.
Persimmon is found growing in a wide variety of site conditions, ranging from wet bottomland forests, old fields, to dry scrublands or woods, in full to part sun. At the Arboretum, persimmon occurs along woodland edges and near the bridges, as well as in our Savanna Exhibit.
The Arboretum’s savannas undergo periodic episodes of prescribed fire. Last Thursday Terry Johnson and his volunteer crew spent the better part of the day performing a burn in our North Savanna. A walk through this area will reveal that trees such as sweetgum, sweetbay magnolia, and persimmon continue to sprout back following fire events. These tough native species have root systems well adapted to withstanding periodic fire.
Back in my early days learning botany in college, persimmon was the one tree that continually managed to stump me on my tests. The tree has a simple leaf. In other words, the leaf does not have distinctive identifying characteristics such as lobes or spines, or sheen such as is found on red maple, Southern magnolia, American holly, or sweetgum. Therefore, the identity of a persimmon branch resting on a classroom table was not always readily apparent, in particular because persimmon leaves have a wide variation in size. Sometimes the leaves are small and stunted, other times they are quite large and robust, depending on the site where it is found.
I soon learned the secret for identifying persimmon by looking for its characteristic “bundle scar”. The vascular bundle scar is the pattern that remains on the branch (and often on the leaf as well) after you have plucked a leaf off the tree. Black gum, for example, has a pattern of three dots. Persimmon has a crescent-shaped, single bundle scar that has been described as looking like a smile. What a wonderful way to remember this tree. If persimmon bundle scars make you want to smile back at them, those of black walnut will make you laugh or giggle. Black walnut leaf scar patterns look like tiny faces.
Of course, an easy way to identify persimmon is to find it laden with fruit in the fall, or discover the fruit on the ground. That is, if you can beat the local wildlife to it first. But because persimmon is a species with separate male and female trees, as is characteristic of hollies, you may not find fruit on the persimmon in your yard. If you would like to harvest fruit, it is best to plant several trees to increase the chances of pollination.
Many birds such as wild turkey and woodpeckers will eat persimmon fruit, as well as a wide variety of wildlife including foxes, raccoons, deer, opossums, black bear, and skunks. Luna moth caterpillars will feast on persimmon leaves.
Planting native shrubs and trees such as persimmon can provide food sources for local birds and wildlife throughout the year, and especially in the winter months, when critters often need extra food for fuel and warmth.
Last weekend we held a children’s workshop on creating wildlife “ornaments” for birds and other wildlife. The participants made garlands from oat cereal, cranberries, dried apples and raisins, and spread “bird butter” (peanut butter, cornmeal, whole oats and bird seed). Because birds do not have salivary glands, they are not able to moisten the peanut butter, so mixing some cornmeal into the peanut butter makes it less sticky.
We still have some handouts left from the program with recipes and tips on creating garlands. Come by and pick one up! Recycle your Christmas tree or wreath after the holidays by weaving in popcorn-cranberry garlands and tying in peanut butter pinecones. Locate it in your yard in view of a window so you can observe the birds and other wildlife that visit.
Please join us for our annual Open House on Saturday, December 8 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Site admission is free to the public this day. Come enjoy light refreshments and browse our gift shop, which now features new work by many Mississippi artisans and craftspersons.
See the program schedule on our website at www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu, or call the Arboretum office at 601-799-2311. We are open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).
For further exploration: Search the Internet for a range map showing the distribution of persimmon. Find a photo of this tree’s distinctive bark, and for examples of the wood. Look up recipes for persimmon pudding and persimmon bread on your favorite search engine. Research the historic consumption of persimmon fruit by early explorers and settlers of North America.