News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 28, 2011

MIKE LUNSFORD: Persimmons planting a few seeds in our heads for winter

Surely, you have heard that we are in for a long, rough winter. The local weather forecasters are saying it; “The Farmer’s Almanac” is warning us of it; and now, the persimmons have confirmed it.

It has been said that persimmon seeds have been reasonably accurate winter weather forecasters for years, at least that’s what folklorists believe. Just a few weeks back, a local television weatherman showed viewers how to look at a seed to tell whether it will be a mild winter, one known for harsh, bitter, cold, or one best remembered for snowfall. His seeds said snow, and plenty of it.

I stopped in at my mother-in-law’s place one day last week. She has three persimmon trees there, old friends who have supplied the fruit that made the pulp that led to a thousand cookies and countless bowls of pudding for our clan over the years. They are non-descript trees, homely in their cragginess, bent like old beggars who live on the northernmost boundary of the lawn, underappreciated and unclimbed now.

By November, when their leaves are just a memory, we see them nearly glow with half dollar-sized fruits. No one picked the persimmons there this year, so when I was finished pulling a small sack’s worth in the drizzle and fog that afternoon, I found them smashed into the treads of my boots, as if they were begging to be pulped one way or the other, my size 12s acting as a blender of sorts.

When I was a boy (I know, this sounds like a long, long story), we had a stand of persimmon trees that stood to the south of my Grandpa Roy’s garden. We all called the place “The Persimmon Grove,” and we played there, for not only those trees grew in the spot, but also a huge oak that held a tree house that my brother, John, and cousin, Roger, had built. It was a special place, not just now as I remember falling out of that tree to end up crying under the glowing lamps of Doc Fell’s alcohol-laced examination room in Rosedale, but because my grandfather witched for water there — and found it — and because my grandmother wanted us to grab all the persimmons we could get from it. She was a prodigious canner of almost anything. 

Persimmon trees are remarkable things. Most often smallish (two of my mother-in-law’s trees stand barely 15 feet or so), they are hardy, can grow in just about any kind of soil (although I think they lean toward sandy dirt), and can produce prodigious amounts of fruit, although they usually wait a year in between big loads.  The tree (Diospyros virginiana) is dioecious; that is, according to Purdue University, each one produces only either male or female flowers. According to science, trees of both sexes are needed for pollination, and only the female trees bear fruit, but my wife says that the two smaller trees at her old home place have not always been there, and yet the biggest of the trio always yielded persimmons year after year.

Persimmon wood was once highly prized for making the heads of golf clubs, but not these days; metals and resins and plastics have replaced it. I have heard that persimmon was used on occasion for furniture veneers, and I remember an old Rosedale bowl-making friend who used persimmon in some of his work.  A friend of another woodworking buddy of mine turns bowls too, and not long ago he told my friend that the roots of persimmon trees are the blackest wood on the continent — “onyx” in fact — and he has turned a beautiful bowl from it.

It is said that splitting a persimmon seed to peek inside is a surefire winter weather indicator. A spoon-shaped pattern in the meat of the seed means snow; a fork means a mild winter; a knife suggests a season of bitter winds and moody cold. The last time I had seen the annual seed-splitting ritual was in my persimmon grove days, my grandfather slicing through the slimy black-grey seed with his pocketknife. Partially out of curiosity, partly out of homage to old times, I decided to do the same thing in my kitchen.

The persimmons I yanked had seen their better days; a few frosts had reduced them to shriveled orange versions of Moms Mabley (old Ed Sullivan Show reruns will help with that analogy), much of their pucker power already shivered out of them. They were soft with thickish hides, and more than a few literally held their pulp like eggs hold yolks.

Our persimmons were not short on seeds either. Each small globe of fruit held at least five or six. The trees themselves can be grown from grafted roots, but nature prefers to do it the old-fashioned way. One tree produces so many seeds, you’d think persimmons would be everywhere, yet they aren’t that commonly found.

For my experiment, I took out my wife’s cutting board, gave a selected seed a good washing, then held the thing between the jaws of a pair of good pliers. I remember watching my television friend do his slicing, and I felt a bit uneasy when I considered what his knife would do to his fingers as he held the slippery target. 

I used my dad’s “Buck Henry,” the sharpest knife I own, and I slowly sawed into the seed as if I were opening an oyster. What I found amazed me; the very first seed held a spoon-shaped outline, nearly as big as the seed’s core, and it stared at me from the kitchen counter, its proportion suggesting I’ll need a snow plow this winter rather than a snow shovel. 

A few days after I split the seed, a little like Fermi split the atom, I found myself rummaging through my clothes closet. It has been a windy fall, so blustery in fact that I had a feeling that even had the persimmons disagreed, winter may show up a little earlier than in most years.  So, I decided that it was probably wise to take stock of my long underwear and boot socks and scarves.

According to the experts — persimmons included — it might not be a bad idea to have my insulated boots and that snow shovel ready too. 

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