Believe it or not, wild persimmons were edible on Sept. 15! I picked up and ate four or five of them the day of the Heritage Festival. There had been no scientific tampering with that persimmon tree on the Nifong property; it was just ahead of its time by getting ripe before cold weather.
It’s a surprise that this wild, delicious fruit can be sour and "astringent" before it ripens. "Astringent" in this case means "mouth-puckering" - that it contracts body tissue and restricts the flow of saliva. You would not believe the misery of it until you test a green persimmon. Few people try it a second time.
Overnight, when it frosts, the fruit can become soft, sweet, orange-colored and edible, but it’s rare that it becomes edible by mid-September.
We old-timers expect persimmons to ripen and fall to the ground only after autumn’s first hard freeze. The ones I ate that day had fallen early and with no mouth-puckering at all. Three weeks later, I read a recipe that advised, "Wait until after the first killing frost." We still had not experienced that. But it is good advice for the uneducated newcomer.
Anyone who has tasted an unripe persimmon, as I have, is leery of picking the fruit off the tree. Woodsy roadsides are good places to look for persimmon trees.
If it is your first experience, sample only the dark orange, soft ones you find on the ground under the tree. You will find more seeds than sweet edible fruit - up to 10 seeds in one wild persimmon.
I’ve bought the large, less seedy ones, but I prefer the ones we ate as children. We country kids used to tease newcomers into trying an unripe one. That might have been one of the meanest things I ever did - next to chasing a young woman, threatening to put a "ground puppy" down her shirt.
An unripe persimmon is greenish-yellow, on its way to being orange when ripe. A tiny bite into one causes mouth-puckering that lasts and lasts. The mouth cannot form words or whistle or swallow, and it’s not funny. The persimmon tree is medium size, nicely shaped and often at the side of a country road. Just before frost, it is full of the small, pumpkin-shaped fruit and easily spotted by driving slowly and glancing occasionally to one side or the other.
The wood of the persimmon tree is of the ebony family - dark, heavy, durable wood of any of various trees, especially of a group of persimmons native to tropical Africa, Asia and Sri Lanka. It is used for furniture and decorative woodwork; the bark is rough, the trunk straight.
As usual, I referred to my trusty 1886 Cyclopaedia of Scientific and Useful Knowledge and discovered this: "Diospyros Virginiana, a tree of the U.S. and of the order Ebenaceae ... The common persimmon tree has a fruit which is excessively astringent until over-ripe, but after hard frosts have bought it to the verge of decay is a very sweet and agreeable fruit."
Also, persimmon trees produced "The wood used for last-making," for shoes, "and other turnery." A skilled wood worker used persimmon wood to make "lasts," forms of the shape and size of a person’s foot, on which shoes or boots were to be made or repaired.
Local trees yield enough wood for furniture, but the little orange balls, smaller than a golf ball, "on the verge of decay" are very sweet in spite of having big seeds.
Gathering persimmons is a good excuse to get out into Missouri’s colorful October countryside.