Part native fruit and part pioneer weather forecaster, the American persimmon ripens this month around the state. Persimmons mature across the country from October to February, but the best time to snag them o the branches in Missouri is mid- to late October, or after the first frost. Look for them on tree branches in a variety of habitats—beside a stream or even in a dry pasture.

The plump, orange fruits (Diospyros virginiana) have long been prized for the sweetness they infuse in everything from traditional baked pudding, butter, or bread to today’s craft beer or wine.

Pulpy and sweet, ripe American persimmons—larger than their Asian counterparts (Diospyros kaki)—were once “the glory of Missouri woods in the late fall-time,” according to A History of Northwest Missouri, published in 1915.

“There is no finer fruit than the Missouri persimmon, despite its seeds and the fact that no one can gracefully eat it,” asserted the book’s editor, Walter Williams, a Boonville native who founded the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia.

Eaten fresh before they’re ripe, these thin-skinned fruits can be as puckerworthy as they are prescient. In his descriptions of Missouri fruits common more than a century ago, Williams recalled how country folks relished the chance to prank urban dwellers by coaxing them to taste unripe persimmons.

“The city gentleman is hazed in the country not merely by the snipe-hunt, but by being called upon to eat a persimmon in the days of its greenness,” he wrote. “This is before the frost takes the puckering taste out of the persimmon.”

Patrick Byers, horticulture specialist for the University of Missouri Extension Service’s southwest region, says native persimmons are often edible in Missouri by early October. But old-timers caution against eating them before the first frost, which varies from region to region. In their prime, fresh persimmons live up to their fans’ praise—if human foragers can get to them before sweet-toothed wildlife that eat them like candy.

In Korean folklore, dried persimmons are thought to be good for warding off tigers. Just hearing the name “Gotgam” which means dried persimmon, is supposedly enough to scare those ferocious cats. • Photo Courtesy Brad Greenlee

So far, Missouri native Patrick has been able to avoid a souring experience. “I’ve lived here all my life, but I can’t remember biting into an unripe persimmon,” he says. “I’ve heard the experience is not pleasant.”

Baking unripe persimmons does not render them less astringent to the palate, although baking soda might temper the sour taste. A 1915 Farmers’ Bulletin suggests adding half a teaspoon of baking soda per cup of persimmon puree or pulp to any baking recipe.

For centuries, persimmons were hailed for more than just their sweetness or as a prop for pranks. From Appalachia to the Ozarks, patterns formed by the white seeds of Diospyros virginiana were among the natural signs once heeded by people living close to the land. They used the shape of the seeds—often compared to spoon, fork, or knife outlines—to determine what kind of weather to expect that winter.

Patrick still pays attention to persimmon seed patterns. “What the spoon means is snow,” he explains. “The knife means cold weather. And I’m not quite sure where the fork comes in, but I think it could mean warm spells.”

With a cool researcher’s eye, Patrick has observed the custom of reading seeds for wintry omens for about eight years—long enough to establish means and averages for the formations he sees while collecting samples every autumn from his nine-county territory.

He gathers 75 to 150 samples a year. It’s fun, he says, something he looks  forward to each autumn. He shares his predictions in columns and YouTube videos, but he doesn’t take it too seriously. Especially in the Ozarks, he says, everyone knows how variable the weather can be.

Patrick Byers, horticulture specialist for the University of Missouri Extension, poses with a trio of his prized persimmons.

Yet some years, the persimmon seeds have proven to be about as accurate as meteorologists. “To be honest, I think they’re about on par with the US Weather Service as far as reliability—not to be knocking the Weather Service,” he quips.

Persimmons are persnickety about more than just the weather; they’re often tricky to prep for baking and cooking. The seeds must be separated from the flesh. Often, recipes call for persimmon pulp, which is a soft glop of fruit that’s been pressed through a strainer to remove the hard seeds and stringy bits.

Persimmon pulp can take the place of bananas in many recipes, Patrick says. If you’re looking for a new pie this Thanksgiving, try using persimmon instead of pumpkin (see pages 82 and 83 for recipes). In place of apricots or other stone fruits, try sliced persimmons in a salad or cobbler. Patrick says they’re also yummy in yogurt, ice cream, butter, and even beer. “I have tried almost all of this,” he notes.

As for persimmon beer, Walter Williams predicted back in 1915 that it would be “a thing of the past … if the expurgation of the persimmon patch, once seen on every farm, continues.” Although the messy, mushy little persimmon patch may have lost its footing on modern, manicured farms, Williams appears to have underestimated Missourians’ ongoing passion for fermenting this homegrown fruit.

In West Plains, Wages Brewing Company bottles persimmon beer. The craft brewery celebrated its first anniversary in August.

Phil Wages, who co-owns the microbrewery with his wife, Amber, says they wait for the persimmons to drop to a tarp before gathering them out from under the trees. “If they’re falling o the tree and they’re all smooshy, that’s the best flavor,” he says.

Persimmon seeds can be difficult to separate from the sweet, tasty
fruit, but it’s well worth the effort if you plan to bake with them. • Photo Courtesy Patrick Byers

After a few years of homebrewing together, he and head brewer Aym Fischer are still experimenting with ways to make the persimmon beer for sale at the brewery less “dry.” They add a little more of the fruit to sweeten it each time. “Oh, yeah, it’s a work in progress,” Phil says.

And they’re still searching for an easier way to separate the sugary pulp from its famously psychic seeds. “The flesh of the fruit really likes to stick to the seeds, so that’s the challenge,” says Phil, who is cultivating a young persimmon patch on his 30-acre farm in southwest Missouri.

In winemaking, the tedious chore of seed separation led Bill Suedkamp to give up on it after opening Persimmon Ridge Vineyards in Barnhart in 2009. Because it took “a couple hundred pounds to get five pounds of juice,” the St. Louis native says he now makes persimmon wine from organic California fruits, which are “a little bigger than a baseball”—and seedless.

Yet Bill still savors the smaller Missouri fruits. He enjoys cooking them into jam or just eating them fresh from the trees on his 85 acres.

“If I see some trees and they look loaded, I’ll go ahead and grab as many of them as I can.”