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By Casey Kenley, Editor

Indianapolis dine, Issue 5, 2007

reprinted with permission

Championing the American persimmon, amateur farmers are working to turn the sweet fruits into a mainstream crop. Besides evaluating marketability and heartiness, the volunteer growers are tasting and falling in love with the delicate fruit. Honey Bear Miller invites us to his grove to tell the story of what he calls “God’s golden goodness.”

A fruit that is fragile, little-known and labor intensive isn’t the type of commodity farmers gravitate toward when evaluating what to grow. The American persimmon fits easily into that description. Persimmon lovers and farmers have attempted to establish a cultivar that can stand the tests necessary to become a mainstream crop, but to no avail. Nonetheless, the petite fruits remain close to many hopeful hearts.

Among that group is Honey Bear Miller, a retired teacher, father of six and much-admired gardener in Elwood who, through the 
Indiana Nut Growers Association, signed on to take part in a project to improve the American persimmon. Through the course of grafting trees and tasting fruit, Miller has grown to love them, referring to them as “God’s golden goodness.”

Persimmons can be hard to come by for the typical consumer. Dillman Farm in Bloomington has bottled pulp in the past, but the business won’t be selling it this year (2007). Individual farmers selling from their homes or at farmers markets are the only local sources. Farmers evaluating what to plant tend to look to commercially viable goods with a history of success, so the persimmon doesn’t have much appeal. Its flavor, on the other hand, has been enough to spur some pioneers to pursue widespread cultivation by improving the fruit’s undesirable qualities such as its incredibly fragile skin and temperamental ripening time.

In the early 1970s, a successful businessman in St. Elmo, Illinois, named Jim Claypool seized the challenge. With expectations that perfecting the fruit would only take a few years, Claypool sought out the strongest of the American varieties, including members of the popular Early Golden family, and started breeding right outside his office doors.

He established an orchard just west of St. Elmo to carry out his mission, winnowing out scrawny trees, taste-testing pulp and keeping detailed records of about 2,400 plants. Three decades later, a persimmon ready for mainstream farming had not been found, and Claypool was unable to keep up his pace. With about 150 varieties showing promise, he sought help and enlisted the Indiana Nut Growers Association.

As a member, Miller signed on to the project and bought a few trees. He now has 17 plants and 23 persimmon varieties at his home. One tree can have up to three grafts, a process in which a section of a stem with leaf buds is inserted into the stock of a tree, therefore growing more than one variety. Each tree is tagged to indicate where in the Claypool orchard the plant derived. For example, his cherished A118 tree planted in 1994 came from row A, tree No. 118.

The characteristics that have kept the fruits from filling orchards and produce aisles are what Claypool and volunteer gardeners such as Miller have studied. These include the long ripening period, small fruit size, thinness of the skin, attractiveness, large number of seeds, consistent pulp color and flavor.

Miller describes the incredible flavor of persimmon pulp as a mix of guava, avocado and apricot, but if you taste it too soon, “It will pucker you up,” he says. They are highly astringent when not yet ripe. A persimmon will fall to the ground on its own when it’s ripe, which is another hindrance to farming. Its thin orange skin can tear easily as soon as it hits the ground, where it’s vulnerable to moisture and bacteria.

Jerry Lehman, a member of the Indiana Nut Grower’s Association since about 1980, also took an interest in furthering Claypool’s endeavor. Lehman grew up on a farm and wanted to grow fruit trees in his retirement, so he bought a 60-acre plot adjacent to his Terre Haute home to breed persimmons and now has about 1,000 trees.

His goal, he says, is to “improve the American persimmon” to reach a mainstream audience. To that end, he has grafted and tended his trees, applying his fascination with horticulture technology and quantifiable results by measuring and weighing fruits, and using the Brix scale, which calculates the percentage of dissolved sucrose in a liquid, to determine a fruit’s sugar content.

He has also experimented with back breeding, something Claypool never did. This process involves breeding a cultivar back into itself (inbreeding in animals), which so far has produced disappointing results. He’s built webbed frames out of PVC pipe and landscaping mesh to catch ripe persimmons and protect them from hard falls. From Mississippi to Maryland, Virginia to Michigan, Lehman has shared his love of and hopes for persimmons by shipping plant materials to encourage fruit growers to take up the torch.

Despite the challenges, Lehman is confident that persimmons will eventually have a place alongside apples and peaches in grocery stores. One of the keys, he says, is to produce a cultivar like the 'Jiro', a Japanese persimmon that isn’t astringent at all. It’s a long shot, but he has hope. If it does become a viable crop, it will provide new flavors for consumers and jobs for people, he says.

Persimmons are exceedingly labor intensive. Growers must diligently check their trees and pick fallen, ripe fruits off of the ground to process them nearly immediately. Honey Bear Miller and his wife Mary’s trees aren’t too many to manage. One year they sold 850 pounds of pulp to Bloomington-based Dillman Farm for its frozen pulp sales, and the Millers keep a freezer stocked with frozen pulp. Honey Bear says he eats Mary’s persimmon pudding at least once a month, with the harvest lasting from the end of August through November.

To make it and anything with persimmons, she first separates the skin, woody calyx and seeds from the sweet pulp using a chinois or fine colander and wooden pestle. It takes about 20 persimmons to get a pint of pulp, depending on fruit size. Mary draws from a well-worn collection of recipes published by Bear Wallow Books in Nashville, Indiana. On its pages in a neat hand, she has written comments to improve recipes for persimmon rice custard, spicy persimmon bread and cookies.

Such desserts and the sugary persimmon are merely a novelty for most of us. For now at least, it’s people like Jim Claypool, Jerry Lehman and Honey Bear Miller who are devoted to the American persimmon, men who seem to share a love for the earth, its heritage and its idiosyncrasies. The persimmon is reserved for those with perpetual hope for an underdog, one whose fragility makes it all the sweeter.

persimmonpudding.com thanks author Casey Kenley and the generous folks at Indianapolis dine for their permission (granted November 12, 2008) to run the article here on persimmonpudding.com.