Learn how to identify, harvest, and preserve wild American persimmons, a tasty late-fall foraged food!
Look for American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) trees growing along field edges. They can sometimes have a shrubby appearance, especially when young, but can eventually grow quite tall – 20 to 60 feet.
Unfortunately, many invasive shrubs, such as Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) are crowding out the areas that native persimmons, plums, etc normally grow in North America. If you spot a wild persimmon getting choked out of its space – cut the surrounding invasive plants off at the ground level and monitor for regrowth control.
Don’t have persimmons on your land and want to grow them instead? Check your state’s forestry department. An example: the Virginia Department of Forestry has persimmon and other trees and shrubs for sale at certain times of the year and the prices + quality are very good!
Identifying Wild Persimmon
American persimmons are dioecious, which means there are both male and female trees, so not every persimmon tree bears fruit. (Only the females do.)
Wild persimmons are native to the Eastern and Central states, and are hardy from zones 4 to 9. These slow-growing trees appreciate full sun, but you can sometimes find them in part shade as well.
The tree is deciduous, meaning the broadly oblong leaves turn colors, then fall away in autumn. The leaves are arranged alternately from each other, and are also edible – sometimes dried to make tea.
Persimmon Fruit & Seeds
The round fruits (actually classified as berries) start off green, then gradually turn peach and orange. There’s a brown calyx on the top of each ripe fruit, that looks like leaves. Here’s a photo of the top of the fruit, plus a whole seed, and a split seed:
Inside a wild persimmon fruit, you’ll find several dark oval seeds. Sometimes there’s only one seed, other times you’ll find more, and sometimes you’ll only find little hard specks inside.
If you slice a seed down the middle, you may spot a spoon, fork, or knife – an old tradition is that this is how you can foretell the upcoming winter’s weather!
This local persimmon is showing a spoon shape inside the seed, which means we’ll be shoveling snow! A knife is said to indicate bitter cold winds that cut through you, and a fork means a nice mild winter.
The bark of wild persimmon trees is dark gray, rough, and furrowed. The pattern looks like it’s broken up into square or rectangular chunks. You may see fissures along the trunk that are orange-ish inside. You’ll sometimes see people refer to this type of bark as “alligator bark”.
Persimmons as a Wildlife Food
Wild American persimmon trees are a valuable late fall resource for local wildlife. Birds, squirrels, deer, skunks, black bears, raccoons, and possums are just a few of visitors that may drop by a loaded persimmon tree. Even some kinds of bees enjoy the sweet fruits!
Don’t fret, however, if you’re thinking this means you can’t harvest any fruit for yourself – one tree produces so much, you’ll hardly cause mass starvation in your local wildlife population if you harvest some for yourself. There’s plenty to go around!
How do you tell when American persimmons are ripe?
Ripe persimmons are fully orange, but more on the darker peachy side rather than jack-o-lantern bright in shade, with a white bloom on the skin and the calyx on top being brown in color. The persimmons may also have little bits of black discolorations on the skin.
The ripe fruit has a thin, highly delicate skin, and when you squeeze it, it should be very, very soft, with no discernable firm sections of flesh. It will often be wrinkled when super ripe, but not always.
If you aren’t used to this fruit, you might assume that it’s past the point of proper eating when it’s actually completely ripe, because sometimes they aren’t exactly pretty! But eschewing these in favor of the luminous, unmarred, firm, and bright orange persimmons still on the tree is a mistake – those aren’t ripe yet.
There’s really no mixing up an unripe persimmon and a fully ripe one- as soon as you take a bite, you’ll know! The tannins in the unripe fruit will leave your mouth feeling dry and puckered. Even fruits that are almost but not quite ripe just yet have some lingering tannins that’ll dry out your tongue.
You can taste the persimmon fruit to test for ripeness, if you’re not completely sure you’ve got a good one. Just pull open the soft, squishy fruit with your fingers, and touch the sticky orange flesh inside to the tip of your tongue. If it’s sweet = good. If there’s cottony-dryness instead = not ripe! Toss that persimmon aside and find a new one.
When’s the harvest window?
Persimmons are a late fall to early winter food. Around here, in zone 7a, eastern United States, the first persimmons start ripening in September and we continue to keep our eye out for ripe fruits into November.
You don’t have to wait for frost to harvest persimmons – this is just a common myth. Some people swear the fruits are inedible until a frost comes to sweeten them up, but persimmons can be deliciously ripe for weeks before the first frost hits, and often are.
How to Harvest
While you can pick the persimmons directly off the tree, there’s a good chance that you might accidently pick a less-than-ripe one.
Gently test the fruits before you pick them for ripeness: squeeze them, check the calyx to see if it’s brown, and if you go to pick it, and the fruit falls easily into your hand without using any force, it’s likely ripe.
If you have to force the fruit from the branch, it’s definitely not ready yet.
If you’re unsure if the fruit you just picked is ripe or not, give it a taste. If it’s ready, it’ll be a sweet, delicious treat. If it’s not, then, well, once the cotton-mouth feel fades, you’ll have a frame of reference to work with.
The fruits drop off the tree when they’re dead ripe, usually with the help of the wind or a shake to the branch. Of course, at this point, they’re also so ripe that they might not survive impact with the ground, especially if the fallen fruit is near the top of the tree.
Some people pick these fallen fruits up directly off the ground after they fall. Avoid collecting old, molding, rotting, or animal/insect-eaten fruits. We also like to avoid collecting any fruit that split or broke on landing unless we actually see them fall, and additionally, only if they landed in clean grass.
Containers for collecting
Ripe persimmons squish very easily. They’re also heavy enough that they can squish themselves and potentially end up ruined if many persimmons are collected in a tall container.
A basket or a cleaned-out ice-cream tub work well for collecting persimmons. Five-gallon buckets, if filled, will likely result in a lot of squished fruits. Cloth bags seem to have a problem with the fruit skin tearing against the sides (this applies to makeshift bags made of shirts, too!).
When all else fails, a regular glass or plastic soup bowl also makes a good collection vessel!
What do American Persimmons Taste Like?
American persimmons have a delicious, sweet flavor that’s very unique; there’s nothing else really quite like it. We detect hints of vanilla, and custard, and a tiny bit reminiscent of dried plums, but even among our family, we taste different flavor notes! A persimmon really just tastes like a persimmon; sticky-sweet, fruity, and entirely itself.
They are very sweet though. Eating just one or two at a time is enough for most people.
Remember – persimmon fruit should be fully ripe to enjoy, or the astringency will make your mouth pucker!
Storage & Eating
American persimmons belong in the same category as alpine strawberries and boysenberries: one of those berries that’s so fragile and soft, they really just don’t keep at all. You don’t normally find these at a regular grocery store!
You can keep them in the fridge for a day or two, but if you try to keep them much further beyond that, you’ll probably end up tossing them out for the wildlife since their shelf life is so short.
Many people turn their persimmons into puree – which can then be frozen and/or used in baking to make:
- breads (recipe by Grow Forage Cook Ferment),
- cakes (recipe by Homestead Honey),
- cookies (recipe by Attainable Sustainable),
- pudding, and other tasty treats.
If you have a favorite recipe that uses banana – then persimmon pulp often makes a good stand-in instead. For example, you can often use a banana bread recipe to make persimmon bread.
The fruits are also used to make persimmon pudding, fruit leather, and ice cream.
How to Make Persimmon Puree
Some foragers use a food mill to separate the pulp from seeds and skin, but we don’t happen to own a good one of those.
Instead, we take a strainer/colander, and either using fingers or the back of a spoon, plus force, press the fruit pulp through, leaving the seeds and chunks of skin behind. Make sure to use only clean and ripe persimmons!
This is easier to do in small batches, scooping out and discarding the seeds and skin in the strainer regularly. (Return these extras outside instead of throwing in the trash – the wildlife will thoroughly enjoy!)
The remaining puree will be smooth and orange, and may have small flecks in it from little bits of discolored skin making it through the strainer.
We use the puree immediately after making it. However, if you want to store it for later use, then freeze it right away, or store in the fridge no longer than overnight, using within one day since it easily spoils.
More Fall Foraged Foods
Love getting your own food from the fields and forests around you? Check out some of our other autumn foraging articles:
- Harvesting & Drying Black Walnuts (+hull & leaf uses!)
- Foraging Goldenrod (Photos, Tips & Lookalikes!)
- Foraging & Using Reishi Mushrooms
- Foraging & Identifying Autumn Olive Berries (+lookalikes!)
- Identifying Chicken of the Woods Mushroom
- Growing & Foraging Passionflower & Maypops (+ ways to use them!)
Our articles are for information and idea-sharing only. While we aim for 100% accuracy, it is solely up to the reader to provide proper identification. Be sure to seek out local foraging classes and plant walks, and invest in foraging guides suitable for the area you live in, since some wild foods may have adverse effect.