Out My Backdoor: Persimmon: the Forgotten Wildlife Food Plant

Persimmons (Terry W. Johnson)

By Terry W. Johnson

One of my favorite wildlife food plants is the common persimmon, a plant that I haven't showered with much attention. In fact, the only thing I have done for this small tree in more than three decades is save it from the bulldozer when my wife and I built our home. In spite of this lack of tender loving care, it is a valuable addition to my home landscape.

The persimmon is one of those select few plants that are in ingrained in the culture of the South. In fact, it is about as Southern as you can get. Yet in spite of the fact that practically all Georgians have heard of the persimmon, it is a largely forgotten wildlife and human food plant.

The common persimmon is a member of a large family of some 200 species scattered across the globe. Here in the United States, the family is represented by only two species. The Texas, or black persimmon, grows in a very limited range that encompasses much of central and southern Texas. The common persimmon's range, on the other hand, sprawls across the Southeast.

Although it may attain a height of 66 feet, most persimmons never top 16 feet tall. As you might expect, the largest trees are usually found growing in rich bottomland soils. Most of us, though, are more familiar with the scraggly looking persimmon trees clinging to life in barren roadsides, clear-cuts, or brushy fencerows.

The common persimmon is rarely grown as a food or ornamental plant. One reason for is that it is extremely slow growing. It takes four to eight years for a tree to bloom for the first time. Then the tree often won't begin producing fruit for another three years. In addition, the persimmon doesn’t have classic fall foliage. While its branches are festooned with attractive greenish-yellow to white blooms in late spring, more times than not this tree goes unnoticed.

Another reason for the lack of popularity is that male and female flowers are produced on separate trees. Female flowers are solitary and urn-shaped, measuring less than an inch long. Male blossoms are even smaller (roughly a half-inch long) and appear in small clusters. As a result, if you want a crop of common persimmons, you need to plant both male and female trees. The problem is, when you transplant a persimmon you don't know the sex of the saplings.

Most persimmons live in obscurity until autumn. Once the tree begins shedding its leaves, its crop of inch- to 21/2-inch-long fruits (actually, they’re berries) look much like small, orange Christmas ornaments hanging on the tree's naked branches.

If picked at the right time, they are quite tasty. In fact, the early botanists thought the mushy flesh of the persimmon was so delicious it gave it the genus name Diospyros, a derivation for a Greek word meaning food for the gods. However, they are not fit for man or beast until they ripen. Anyone who has tried to eat a persimmon before it is ripe will tell you that the extremely bitter taste is something they will never forget. Some folks wouldn't think of eating a persimmon until after a frost; however, frost doesn't have anything to do with the ripeness of the fruit.

I can attest to that: I enjoyed the juicy orange flesh of persimmons back in September.

Here are a couple of tips: A persimmon that falls off of the tree is usually ripe. Also, persimmons that are wrinkled and purple are usually very sweet.

The delicious, mushy flesh of the persimmon makes great wine, beer, pudding, bread, cakes and jam. Dried persimmon leaves can even been used to brew a tea. Both the dried leaves and fruits are rich in vitamin C. Recent medical research suggests that regularly eating persimmons will help lower cholesterol.

Persimmon wood is extremely hard. At one time it was used to make the heads of drivers and fairway woods. In fact, Georgia's own Bobby Jones, arguably the greatest golfer of all time, played with persimmon woods. Today, persimmon clubs are almost never found in a golfer's bag; they have been replaced with aluminum, steel, titanium and other materials.

Humans aren't the only ones who feast on persimmons. The persimmon is an important wildlife food plant. Persimmon trees often host caterpillars of the beautiful pale green Luna moth. More than 28 other wildlife species eat persimmons.

Of course, practically everyone knows opossums do. But persimmons are also gobbled up by other mammals such as rodents, white-tailed deer (they also eat the leaves and twigs), raccoons, foxes, black bears and skunks. The list of birds that dine on persimmons includes wild turkeys, yellow-rumped warblers, cedar waxwings, catbirds, robins, pileated woodpeckers and mockingbirds.

If persimmons are ripe, their flattened, reddish brown seeds will show up in the scat of foxes, raccoons and other animals. The seeds easily pass through the digestive tracts of these animals and are spread to spots far from the tree where they were devoured. Some of these seeds will later germinate to produce a new generation of persimmon trees.

If you are one of those folks wondering what kind of winter we will experience this year, you might want to consult a persimmon seed. Folklore tells us that if you slice a persimmon seed lengthwise, you will find the image of a spoon, knife or fork. Supposedly, the presence of a knife means we are in for a rough, unsettled winter. A mild winter is predicted by the image of spoon. If a fork is seen, our winter is supposed to be medium to bad.

I recently sliced one open and found a spoon. If you want to test this folk tale, be extremely careful when you try to cut open one of the hard, flat seeds.

Common persimmons are difficult to get established in a backyard setting. Consequently, when clearing a lot for a new home or maintaining a fence line, leave some of the persimmon trees that you find. If you have one standing on your property, don't cut it down. The tree will provide a dependable source of fruits for you and your wildlife neighbors for years to come.

If you want to establish persimmons on your property, there are a couple of ways you can go. It is best to simply buy saplings from reputable nursery that deals in native plants. However, if you want a challenge, you can also plant seeds. Since the seeds need to be stratified, this can be difficult for anyone not familiar with the process. On top of that, they take a long time to germinate.

I have heard of somebody claiming they get 90 percent germination from persimmon seeds. If you’re not squeamish, you might try their technique. I cannot attest to the effectiveness of the technique, but here’s how you do it.

During winter, collect seeds from wild animal droppings. The droppings aren’t difficult to find in open areas, along dirt roads and walking trails. Then plant the seeds in pots. The person who reported this technique feels that the seeds are scarified when they pass through an animal's digestive system. In addition, being exposed to the elements naturally stratifies them. Who knows? Let me know if it works.

I hope that you will try persimmons in your backyard. If you are successful in getting a tree or two started, the only problem you will have is collecting some delicious persimmons before your wildlife neighbors eat them all.

Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column. Contact rick.lavender@dnr.state.ga.us.) Learn more about TERN, The Environmental Resources Network, at http://tern.homestead.com“Out My Backdoor” columns archive.