I tasted my first wild 'simmon on a dripping late-October morning. A hard all-night rain had slowed to an on-again, off-again drizzle as my friend John Madson and I climbed a hill on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. At the edge of the hilltop woods stood two or three runty American persimmon trees (Diospyros virginiana) with brownish-black bark that was deeply etched into small square plates. A few wrinkled, reddish-orange berries the size of Ping-Pong balls hung from the higher branches, just out of reach. But there were several ripe fruit scattered in the soggy leaf-litter--more than enough for an introduction to this syrup-sweet Southern delicacy.
Persimmon is a name we owe to the Algonquin Indians. They collected the fruit, the pasimenan, dried them like prunes and made bread from them all winter. Hill folk call the big berries "possum apples," for on a fall night when the persimmons are ripe you're almost certain to find a passel of fat opossums gathered for a feast. We humans also have to share the windfall with raccoon, fox, skunk, deer and just about every other critter of woodland and field with a sweet tooth.
The name for the persimmon genus, Diospyros, translates as "fruit of the gods," which is arguably accurate when the berry is fully ripe. But a green persimmon is so laden with astringent tannin that one bite will pucker your lips for an hour. You need to wait until the 'simmons look and feel like rotten apples, crinkled and mushy, usually after a frost. Separated from the four to eight large, flat seeds, the orange pulp can be used for a variety of delicious cakes, pies, cookies, puddings, jams and juices.
Persimmons grow as far north as southern New York and Connecticut, west to Kansas and Texas, and south to the Gulf and nearly the tip of Florida. You can find them in old fields, mixed forest, along roadsides and fencerows, and especially in the rich soil of river valleys. The biggest trees, 70-footers, occur in the bottomlands of the Mississippi and its tributaries. The wood is hard and heavy but has limited use, mostly for the heads of golf clubs.