(10/06/22) BATON ROUGE, La. — If you happen to be taking a walk in the all-too-brief temperate weather of October in Louisiana and stumble upon a tree with wide leaves and beautiful, yellow-orange fruit, don’t think about picking one and taking a bite. You will be in for a bitter disappointment.
That’s because what you’ve likely encountered is a persimmon tree, one that will eventually produce deliciously sweet fruit that — like autumn weather in Louisiana — is fleeting in its prime.
Bob Mirabello, an LSU AgCenter horticulturist who is doing his doctoral research on persimmons, said the fruits are considered a delicacy in Asia, where they are primarily grown and sold. Here in the West, however, their popularity remains elusive.
Unripe persimmons contain tannins, which coagulate proteins and make the mouth pucker. In unripe fruit, this acts as a defense mechanism to prevent animals from eating it while the seeds inside are maturing, Mirabello explained. By the time persimmons ripen to the point of becoming edible, the texture is such that Americans generally find it unappealing.
“A lot of my research shows that American consumers just aren’t as familiar with the texture,” Mirabello said. “We have centuries of eating things like apples and peaches, but with a persimmon, we have to let them ripen so far along it’s hard for most of us to appreciate. The idea that you can slice it up and make it into a pie just doesn’t happen.”
In Asia, persimmons are often consumed fresh in the soft, ripened state. They also are dried into a type of fruit leather and used to make vinegars and wines.
The fact that texture prevents many in the West from consuming them is unfortunate, Mirabello said. A ripened persimmon has a honey-like sweetness that he said makes the sweetest satsuma pale by comparison.
“On the Brix scale, which measures sugars in fruits and vegetables, where the sweetest satsuma is about 12 to 14, the sweetest ripened persimmon can measure 20 to 25,” he said. “One option I’ve found for preparation is to use the fruit like you would an overly ripe banana and make persimmon bread.”
Persimmons can be broken down into three varieties: astringent, non-astringent and native.
Astringents are bitter when unripe. As the fruit ripens, it turns bright orange and the tannins mellow, developing the sweetness that becomes desirable once the fruit is almost gelatinous, which is not as pleasing to the Western palate.
Non-astringent persimmons, which comprise the bulk of Mirabello’s research, were developed in Japan and don’t produce the bitterness associated with the astringent variety. Thus, they are edible while still firm, like a peach or apple.
Mirabello said these are increasing in popularity because consumers do not have to worry about the tannins or having to consume them when overly soft. They also solve post-harvest issues producers might have because of the difficulty associated with harvesting something as fragile as the astringent variety.
“Non-astringents have started to become popular in different parts of the world like Italy, Spain, Brazil and regions of the former Soviet Republic,” he said. “They can easily be grown in Louisiana and can be shipped with more ease and without as much loss. This also extends the window for consumption.”
Oriental persimmons (Diospyros kaki) can be both astringent and non-astringent. Some non-astringent varieties include Fuyu, Fuyu Imoto, Hana Fuyu, Jiro and Suruga.
The final variety is the native (Diospyros virginiana) persimmon, which has small fruit about the size of a ping pong ball and lots of seeds, making them difficult to eat, even when ripe. Mirabello said these are the types that may give some Louisianans unpleasant flashbacks.
“They are super astringent, so the problem with consumers who have grown up in this part of the U.S. is that they may have had older siblings hold them down and shove one of those bitter things into their mouths,” he said. “Changing these attitudes is one of the reasons I’m trying to educate the public about the non-astringent types.”
Mirabello said native persimmons have a larger, more vigorous tree that can be used as rootstock, so the Oriental persimmons grown in south Louisiana are grafted onto those, which makes them adaptable to local soil types.
“Another benefit of native persimmons is to hunters because deer love the fruit and it can attract them,” he said.
Oriental persimmon (Diospyros kaki) trees have beautiful autumn foliage. The fruit looks a bit like an orange tomato and is edible when fully ripe and almost gelatinous in texture. Photo by Anna Ribbeck/LSU AgCenter
The Hachiya, shown here at the Asian Supermarket in Baton Rouge, is an astringent persimmon that can be eaten raw when they are ripe and almost gelatinous. Their flesh flavor is sometimes described as being honey- and custard-like. Photo by V. Todd Miller/LSU AgCenter
The native persimmon has small fruit with lots of seeds, making them difficult to eat, even when ripe. They are known to attract deer and other wildlife. Photo by Bob Mirabello/LSU AgCenter