When my wife Mary Alice and I visit our son's family in Arlington, Va., we often take walks around their neighborhood. On an unusually warm and sunny morning walk last winter, we noticed large brown seeds scattered on the sidewalk beneath a tree.
I was unable to identify the tree even after looking at the seeds and bark of the tree. We noticed a lady across the street, working in her flower garden. I asked her if she knew the name of the tree, and she replied that it was a native persimmon tree.
According to the following song and story, most opossum hunts ended at the foot of a persimmon tree.
Raccoon's got a bushy tail,
Possum's tail goes bare,
Rabbit's got no tail at all,
Just a little old bunch of hair.
After returning home, I looked through a few books on trees until I found information on the persimmon tree. It is a southern tree, with thick, dark brown bark that is deeply divided into many square plates (blocks) with zig-zag twigs.
The scientific name is Diospyros virginian Linnaeus. The generic name of Diospyros is Greek and means "the fruit of Zeus." The species name virginian means "of Virginia," named by Linnaeus.
Our native persimmon tree is a close relative of the kaki tree, or Japanese persimmon.
Raccoon is a mighty man,
He rambles through the dark,
You ought to see him hunt his den,
When he hears Old Ranger bark.
The common persimmon is a small to medium-sized tree, with a trunk of up to 1 foot in diameter.
It usually is planted for ornamental purposes; however, where the tree grows wild, thickets are formed, especially on dry and eroded slopes.
Along with springing up from seeds, the tree sends out stolons, or roots, from which trees spring up; however, the trees from these roots usually are small and shrubby.
Possum up persimmon tree,
Raccoon on the ground,
Raccoon says to opossum,
"Won't you shake them 'simmons down."
The fruit appears as almost a round berry, about 1/2- to 1 inch in diameter. At first, the fruit is green. It changes to an amber color as it ripens and, then, in October, the ripe fruit often has a purplish tinge.
A persimmon is very astringent before ripening. The skin will be wrinkled when the persimmon is ripe.
The persimmons sold in our markets are the Japanese persimmons and, when ripe, they are juicy, sweet and edible.
One book stated that the persimmon is a fruit that you must have acquired a taste for while growing up. During the Civil War, Southern troops boiled persimmon seeds to use as a substitute for coffee.
The American Indians made a bread from the persimmon fruit, which was eaten to stop dysentery.
Although the common persimmon fruit never became popular with humans, it is a favorite of wildlife and is eaten by birds, especially the bobwhite, as well as wild hogs, flying squirrels, fox, raccoons, skunks, deer and, above all, the opossum.
Both our native persimmon tree and the Japanese persimmon tree are members of the family Ebenaceae (a tropical group), whose most famous member is the ebony tree, of southern Asia.
Rabbit up in the gum stump,
Coon in the holler,
Possum in the tater patch,
Fat as he can waller.
- Author unknown
A painting by Audubon shows the opossum high in the branches of a persimmon tree, eating the fruit.
With the opossum in the south feeding so heavily on the fruit of the persimmon tree, it's understandable that another name for this tree is possum wood.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.