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Mystery Plant: When ripe, this fruit is an autumn treasure

Mystery Plant: When ripe, this fruit is an autumn treasure

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“If the fruit be not ripe it will draw a mans mouth to much torment.”

— attributed to Capt. John Smith of Jamestown

Indeed, it is very, very true. The unripe fruits are hard and green, slowly ripening to a beautifully frosted pink-orange. Before they are ripe, the fruits are inedible: they are extremely bitter (some use the word “astringent”). I have bitten into an unripe fruit, just to see what it’s like, and of course, the inside of my mouth turned into a sort of medicinal electric cardboard taste, a taste that took a long while to go away.

Another time, and on one of my class field trips, I invited a student to bite into one of these things. Not knowing any better, he did, and was similarly treated to terrible cardboard mouth. I still feel guilty about doing that, and have vowed never to play a trick on a student again. (Well, not that trick, anyway.)

This is a common tree from New England into the Midwest, and south through all of Florida, and over to Texas. It is usually a small or medium-sized tree, although one of the largest in the world is more than 120 feet tall, right here in central South Carolina. Its bark is rough and checkered, broken into dark, scaly blocks, much like what you see on a dogwood tree. The leaves, 4 to 6 inches long, are deep green in the summer and somewhat chalky on the lower side, and they turn a brilliant yellow or orange-red in the fall.

Interestingly, wherever a leaf has been chewed on, by a bug or something, or otherwise wounded, the tissue right around the wound turns black. (Always.) The trees are either male or female, bearing unisexual flowers. The wood of this species is dark, hard and very durable. In fact, during the era of King Cotton, this tree was an important source of loom shuttles in mills. (You can just imagine the dust, whacking and clattering that went on all day.)

This species is entirely confined to North America, but it has about 200 close relatives, in the same genus, in Africa and Indonesia — some of which are prized for their fruits, which are often available in markets. (One other native American species grows in central Texas.) All of these species are members of the ebony family, and it is the true ebony tree, whose dark, hard wood has historically been the source for piano keys.

Our Mystery Plant isn’t very picky about where it grows, and it does well in a variety of settings and soils. The combination of handsome bark, attractive foliage (summer and fall) and fruit make this an excellent choice for the home landscape.

Back to the fruits. When they are fully ripe, the fruits are delicious — not only for humans, but for a variety of critters. If you’ve never tried one, you must. They are ready to eat when they are soft, almost mushy, and you can gather them from the ground. Just brush the sand and any bugs off and remove the seeds. There are plenty of recipes out there for ripe persimmons, including savory puddings, bread, and even ice cream.

Answer: “Persimmon,” Diospyros virginiana.

John Nelson is the retired curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit herbarium.biol.sc.edu or email johnbnelson@sc.rr.com.

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