OK, it’s autumn. The warblers are migrating through town—Joe saw two yellow warblers and a Wilson’s, another yellow and an orange-crowned, two more yellows and a Townsend’s; we’ve seen Townsend’s and hermit warblers with gangs of Wilson’s warblers and the usual chickadees and bushtits in Tilden Park. The fog has a colder, Arctic-flavored edge to it in the evenings. The trees are starting to fall into step, the mulberries tossing leaves to the ground with an audible whack.
And there are persimmons on the persimmon trees.
There are persimmon trees dotted all around here, all of them, as far as I know, privately owned. They’re Diospyros kaki, a species from Asia, known as “Japanese persimmon.” There are astringent and non-astringent varieties.
The astringent kind is a bit more familiar in most places; you find them in the market, labeled as ‘Hachiya’ variety. They’re pointy at the bottom end, and you have to let them get so soft they won’t hold their own weight before you eat them; you cut them in half and spoon the translucent flesh out like pudding. (Or you use it to make real pudding, sweet, dark and spicy. Or bread. Or cookies.) At that point it’s been transfigured to incredible sweetness. Traditionally you were supposed to wait for the first frost, but even here, they do ripen—if they’re allowed to.
I’ve seen a squirrel hopping across the street with a ripe-looking persimmon in its teeth, looking absurdly top-heavy but squirrelishly smug. Those annoying rodents also have the habit of taking one bite out of each fruit they find and leaving the rest to fester. Pfui. Well, sometimes birds will, too. Most of the persimmon trees I see are small enough to use bird netting on.
The non-astringent persimmons—the ones you see in the produce store are mostly the ‘Fuyu’ variety—are flattened little globes and you can eat them while they’re still hard and crunchy, just so they’re orange. It’s counterintuitive, but they are actually a bit harder to store than the ‘Hachiya’ types, because they often get mushy if you put them in the fridge. You can sieve out ripe ‘Hachiya’ pulp and freeze it and it’ll be fine for months.
I used to like working on persimmon trees when I was an arborist. It’s hard to explain, but some trees just feel pleasant under the pruning shears, and are open in structure and not jabby and rude, and generally show you what they want besides. When you develop some tree sense, it quickly becomes clear what will keep the tree healthy and give it the form it wants to grow into, in the space it’s allowed. They like the climate here, but they don’t go crazy and get huge either.
Aside from the fruit, one reason people plant persimmons here is their fall color. Not every tree will get gorgeous without cold weather, but persimmons’ big oval leaves can turn outrageous shades of bold gold, deep orange, and scarlet, sometimes all on one leaf. This, all on a small tree with an open structure that you can look through with minimal pruning—it makes for a nice inhabitant in a small yard.
We have a tansu in the dining room, found at a bargain price maybe 15 years ago. It caught my eye from across the warehouse because, while perfectly natural and unaltered, it was gaudy and extravagant; the veneer on the front looked like tiger hide. The seller said it’s persimmon wood, with cypress insides and Japanese maple trim. The veneer must be peeled off the log like an apple peel; persimmons are pretty skinny even when they’re mature—at least on this side of the Pacific.
Persimmons do have a native North American representative, Diospyros virginians. That’s the one the folk songs refer to: “Possum on a ‘simmon tree/ Raccoon on the ground;/ Raccoon tell the ‘possum/ Won’t you shake them ‘simmons down?” They grow in the eastern United States as far north as southern Pennsylvania and Illinois, at least, and bear much smaller fruit, compared to cherry tomatoes or walnuts. I’m still trying to chase one down, myself, as the little fruits are supposed to be much more intensely flavored than the big ones. Clues appreciated!
Ron Sullivan’s last column (Sept. 20 issue) was not printed in its entirety. The whole piece is posted on www.faultline.org /place/toad/archive/002590.html and on the Berkeley Daily Planet web site.›