Making a case for quince, persimmon
“Let’s go quince picking!”
“Well you know it wouldn’t be the holidays without a persimmon pie!”
Alright, so I doubt you know anyone who has ever said that. Nor do I. But sometimes I do wonder why other delicious autumnal fruits are given no share of apples’ spotlight. With the current trends in the culinary world of making “weird” ingredients mainstream, I hope these two fruits will be able to build a fan base. If you are thinking of planting a few fruit trees, at least consider including the underrated quince and the oft-forgotten persimmon.
Persimmons are a large berry that grow on trees. American Persimmon or Diospyros virginiana grow wild in much of the United States but have been cultivated for thousands of years. Native Americans grew them for their beautiful and delicate wood, and eventually began to enjoy the fruit. Persimmon is in the Ebenaceae family and is considered to be an ebony wood. Because this wood is so unique and striking it has long been prized in fine woodworking—ornate furniture, millwork, pool cues, and for a long time was the prime selection for the shaft of golf club. The reason drivers are called ‘woods’ is before the shafts were made of lightweight metal, they were made of lightweight persimmon wood. Interestingly, when TaylorMade released their first metal-shafted golf club it was called a “Pittsburgh Persimmon.” Persimmon trees ultimately grow to be about 30–50 feet tall and make an attractive addition to an orchard. They grow elegantly with a slim trunk and spindle-like branches.
There are a few reasons perhaps persimmons have fallen from vogue — the first is they require a great deal of patience. Usually a persimmon tree will not fruit for eight years, with full production not until 15 years. Another likely reason is the short window of time to enjoy them. Persimmon harvest is not until late October and through November. Because the fruit is so high in sugar and soluble tannins, they can taste unpalatably astringent and acidic. They also have sort of a “furry” texture. All of that changes after a few hard frosts. Before the hard frosts the fruit is a lighter golden color, whereas afterward it becomes a rich golden-orange with blushes of red. “Persimmon” is often assigned to fabric and paint colors that share this rich and alluring hue. Also, the flavor begins to mellow and the sweetness prevails over the tart. Once truly ripened (which can take well into December) these fruits can be baked into pies, turned into jellies, or simply enjoyed raw. Because of the high level of natural sugar in persimmon, they are often called “sugar plums.” So they are in fact woven into holiday folklore. I am excited to say that I have even seen persimmons at the grocery store this year.
Another desirable feature of a persimmon tree is they will often grow where other fruit trees would not. They tolerate wet feet extraordinarily well and are often found growing wild among riverbanks. They are absolutely cold hardy and do not require any covering through the winter as some other fruit trees do. They are pollinated by insects and wind, so it would be best to plant at least two.
The other fruit I would like to make a case for is quince. Quince (Cydonia oblonga) is a delicious fruit with an extraordinary flavor that I would best describe as a mix between an apple and a lemon. Intense but sweet, often just a tablespoon of quince jam is added to apple pie to enhance the apple flavor. Quince also has a very rich history. It is even theorized the fruit that tempted Eve was not an apple, but a quince. Quince are native to the Middle East and Mediterranean and have actually been cultivated longer than apples. The word marmalade, which is a sweet sauce of cooked fruit, comes from the Portuguese word ‘marmelo’ which originally meant specifically quince jam. Quince were cultivated and treasured by ancient Greeks as well. According to legend, Aphrodite held quince in a sacred regard and it was a traditional offering at weddings; the aromatic fruit was said to perfume the kiss of the bride. Quince were also a common addition to colonial American orchards.
Quince are self-fruitful but production can be enhanced by pollination. They are cold hardy here in our growing zone, and require a period of cold to successfully produce. Unlike the persimmon, quince must be harvested before the first frost like their apple cousins. Quince are exceptional additions to any cuisine. They make memorably flavorful pies and additions to cakes. Because they have such high levels of pectin and a strong and distinct flavor, quince is often combined with other fruits like apple, blackberry or even strawberries to make exquisite and uncommon jams and jellies.
So with holiday baking and entertaining in full swing, consider trying something new with one of these delightful and often under-appreciated fruits.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.