Persimmons have long been associated with forecasting winter weather, but the facts and history associated with these fruits and the trees they grow on are as interesting as the folklore.
Persimmon fruit and persimmon wood are well-known products in Missouri. Persimmon wood, which is considered to be among the hardest of any North American tree species, was a popular material for wooden textile shuttles, golf club heads, pool cues and other products before being replaced (in some products) by manufactured materials. The pinkish-orange fruit the tree produces in the fall has long been the main ingredient of jams, pudding, breads and other food items.
Interestingly enough, the origins of both the scientific and common names of the persimmon tree sum up the taste extremes of its fruit. The taxonomic name of the tree -- Diospyros virginiana -- provides a description of the sweet taste of fruit when fully ripe: “Diospyros” is a Greek word meaning “fruit of the gods.” On the other end of the fruit’s palatability spectrum is its common name, “persimmon,” which is likely a derivative of a Native American word that sounded something like “putchimon” or “pushemin.” This word meant “choke fruit” and was, no doubt, a reference to the sour, mouth-puckering taste of unripe persimmons.
Persimmon trees are dioecious, which means there are male and female persimmon trees. The alternative to this is monoecious, where one tree has both male and female parts. Male persimmon trees have small clusters of small whitish or green-whitish flowers. Females have a single flower. Bees are the primary pollinating agents.
It’s unclear how winter forecasts became associated with persimmon fruit, but here are the details: Splitting a persimmon seed will reveal a fork, spoon, or knife on the seed’s interior. According to lore, the image of a spoon indicates that the upcoming winter will feature an abundance of heavy, wet snow; a fork predicts light and powdery snow, and a knife forecasts a winter with bitter, icy winds. As is the case with any type of folklore, forecasting by persimmon seed has both supporters and nay sayers.
Regardless of what side you take in this weather debate, everyone can agree that this tree has had an interesting history in North America. The earliest mention of persimmons is found in the journals of Hernando de Soto’s expedition through parts of what is now the southeastern and south-central U.S. The Spanish explorer references them as a tasty fruit and the source of a bread made by Native Americans. In the 17th and 18th centuries, persimmon trees were introduced to parts of Europe, and their propagation was encouraged.
The food value of persimmons was quickly adapted by pioneers as America became settled and a number of food items made from persimmons developed. Two of the more interesting products of persimmon fruit were persimmon wine and persimmon beer. In 1773 Finnish naturalist Pehr Kalm wrote that “(Persimmon beer) is reckoned much preferable to other beer.” A century later, persimmon beer was common enough that it had developed a nickname “possum toddy.” This was a reference to a place opossums are commonly found in the fall in persimmon trees eating the fruit.
Many claimed this tree and its fruit also had a curative aspect. The medicinal value of persimmon bark and/or fruit was touted in a number 19th-century cures. Dysentery, diphtheria, thrush and hemorrhoids were among the maladies that had home remedies that included persimmon parts.
Moving from food to function brings us to another former value of persimmons. Persimmon seeds were used as buttons particularly in the South during the Civil War. In 1863 a writer for Atlanta's Daily Intelligencer wrote “If you use them (persimmon seeds) for buttons, the washer woman will hardly break them with her battling stick.”
If you lived in the South during the Civil War and didn’t need persimmon seeds for buttons, you made coffee with them. Because of the Union blockade of Confederate port cities, coffee was among the food items that were in short supply in the South. Persimmon seeds were one of several alternatives southern coffee drinkers turned to. An 1863 edition of the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser reports “… the seeds of the persimmon when roasted and ground produces a beverage which cannot, even by old and experienced coffee drinkers, be distinguished from genuine coffee.”
On top of all these uses, green persimmons could be used to make ink.
It should be noted that these references pertain to the persimmon tree native to North America Diospyros virginiana which had a native range consisting of the eastern and central U.S.
When Commodore Matthew Perry established formal relations between the U.S. and Japan in the 1850s, one of the items he brought back to the U.S. was what’s become known as the “Japanese” or “Oriental” persimmon, Diospyros kaki. This persimmon variety became established in the western U.S. most notably in California. It produces a larger fruit than our native persimmon tree and today is the source of much of the persimmon fruit sold commercially in the U.S.
Moving back to our native persimmon tree, much of its former prominence has gone by the wayside. Today, it’s most common location is old fields, pasture edges and other out-of-the-way places of the rural landscape. If you're interested in adding these trees to your property, persimmon is one of many trees that can be ordered through the Missouri Department of Conservation’s annual tree seedling sales program, which is currently under way. The ordering period will run through April 15. Tree seedling ordering information can be found online at mdc.mo.gov/seedlings. Order forms are also available at most MDC offices.
Information about persimmon trees about other types of trees found in Missouri can be found at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call (417) 895-6880