Picture of single persimmon on a branch - backlit

Judging the Ripeness of Persimmons
Diospyros virginiana L.
(common, or American persimmon)

 
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Where does one start if one wants to forage wild persimmons?  The first place to start is at home.  You should become intimately familiar with any plant BEFORE searching for it.  Additionally, you should be absolutely certain about your identification before eating anything you forage.  That said, in the case of Diospyros virginiana, common, or American persimmons, there are no known lookalikes.  

How to Judge A Ripe Persimmon...

So you've decided to find some persimmons, but you want to know how to tell which ones are ripe.  It isn't so simple...or is it?    It does not help that a good many references speak about Asian persimmons as the only option.  The issue is further confused by the mention of Asian and American persimmons interchangably.  While there can be similarities, they aren't the same at all. 

     The ripeness of persimmons is a little different than with most fruits.  First, with Asian persimmons you have astringent and nonastringent varieties.  Non-astringent persimmons can be eaten even while firm and somewhat "green" (orange in color).  They are best eaten in-hand, or used as cut fruit.  These persimmons will need to be peeled. 

Astringent asian persimmons require bletting in order to be ripe.  Bletting is the process in which fruits are allowed to go just past what is normally thought to be ripe...almost to the point of decay, but just before ferment.  This should NOT be considered the same as rotten or inedible.  The bletting process reduces tannins and increases sugars.  It is this fact that becomes immediately apparent if you eat an ripe persimmon just after eating an unripe astringent-type persimmon.  

There are a number of fruits which require bletting before we view them as being at their peak flavor.  They include quince, service tree fruits (NOT Amelanchier species), medlars and more commonly, persimmons and pears. Bletting renders these fruits soft and juicy (pears, quince, medlars) or soft and very custard-like (persimmons).  Nothing beats the astringent persimmon when, after bletting, is transformed into something very rich and fine.

Diospyros virginiana (common, or American persimmons) also require bletting before they become palatable.  So how does one determine whether our native persimmons have ripened into richness?  It takes a bit of practice but there are some signs.

Native persimmons should NOT be picked from the tree.  When they are ripe they will usually fall easily from the tree.  If you pick them, they will usually be astringent.  Some may be ready to fall and usually just enough vibration or movement of limbs to simulate the wind will enable them to fall.

Persimmons are at the peak of beauty BEFORE they have bletted.  Firm, orange-to-red fruits are gorgeous.  However, they will be quite memorable when you taste them at this stage!!!  When persimmons have bletted sufficiently, they darken considerably to purplish-orange or even somewhat brown-amber.  The skin has become almost translucent and very thin.  The shape of the fruit will change somewhat and start to sag...almost like the pulp is about to fall through the skin.  Small wrinkles form on the skin due to the sagging pulp.  Often, fruits will split or pop when they hit the ground. 

What Does An Unripe Persimmon Taste Like?

This is another area in which a good many articles and books confuse an issue.  Literature commonly refers to unripe persimmons as "bitter" or "sour".  This isn't really the case, though the real effect isn't easily explained.  Persimmons are full of tannins.  

When you eat an unripe astringent persimmon (American or Asian) the mouth immediately draws up.  Sometimes you'll get a hint of sweetness (if it is near-ripe) but the mouth-feel is immediate.  Tannins in persimmons make your tongue, cheeks, and gums feel as though you're chewing on a cross between aspirin, alum, and chalk.  Your tongue almost feels like a fine sandpaper.  It isn't nearly as hazardous nor debilitating as you often see in print.  
The effect is temporary...but does last a short while.  You will still be able to talk, eat, & drink.  Since this astringent effect wears off shortly, other food and/or drink helps the feeling pass fairly quickly.  Unripe persimmons are foul, but they are nothing to fear.  We all catch a slightly unripe persimmon trying to rush the tasting of early ripeners each Fall.  However, persistence pays off with persimmons and you should be rewarded with ambrosia when you learn how to judge ripeness.  

Ripening Persimmons

Quite by accident I  discovered that one could ripen persimmons which were harvested too early.  I figured this out when I took home a number of fruit-laden persimmon branches which had dropped after the work of the persimmon twig girdler.  The fruit had already turned orange, but were not yet ripe and still plenty astringent.  When I go back to my lab, I laid all the branches out.  I had hoped to get a series of photos of the twig girdler larvae for this site.  Unfortunately I got busy.  The branches languished in the lab for weeks.  I walked by them one day and started to split a few branches to check for larvae.  I did notice that the fruit had lost a good amount of moisture, but for all appearances looked ripe.  So I tasted a few and found that they were not bad other than they lacked a little bit of moisture.  Apparently the wait had allowed them to ripen.  That said, Mike Krebill sent in an article in 2011 entitled Ripening Persimmons in which he discussed his process for ripening persimmons which had been harvested before they were fully ripened.