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Native Tree of the Year

Adkins Arboretum’s Native Tree of the Year Program highlights the ecological and ornamental value of native trees to promote their protection in natural areas and use in cultivated landscapes.

2022 Native Tree of the Year: Common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

Common persimmon is one of my favorite trees. Despite its deciduous nature, its seasonal interest extends through most of the year. In April, its bright green leaves burst from their buds, and June brings delicate flowers. In fall, the leaves fade to burgundy hues and the peachy-orange fruits persist into early winter. Even in winter, its unique blocky bark makes it easy to identify. My first experience with persimmon was the unforgettable, astringent, chalky taste of an unripe persimmon fruit. It took a bit of convincing to try a ripe fruit (it’s so much better, I promise!), but wow, they are delicious and sweet. 

Have you ever noticed the flowers of a native persimmon tree? They are subtle and not particularly showy, but if you happen upon a persimmon tree in May or June, take a closer look. Persimmons are dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female plants. Theoretically, the easy way to identify which plant is which is the presence of fruit: females bear fruit, males do not. However with a little investigative work, you can also tell based on their flowers. Male flowers often are smaller and appear in small clusters, while female flowers are larger, but appear alone. To make things a little more exciting (or complicated, depending on your view), persimmon trees can vary in their sexual expression from one year to the next, and there are several cultivars that are considered to be parthenocarpic, producing seedless fruit without pollination.

Preferring full sun to part shade, persimmons are somewhat versatile in their size (shrubby tree to 75 feet tall), depending on the habitat they are in. They can tolerate old fields, dry rocky soils, and rich, moist soil. Persimmons are perhaps best known for their sweet fruit, which generally ripens shortly after the first decent frost. Given their short shelf life, persimmons don’t seem to have caught on among the humans, but opossums, raccoons, skunks, deer, and birds are happy to feed upon this late-season food source. As a word of caution, research seems to show that horses should not eat persimmons, so if this applies to you, please take note. The tree is a host plant for the luna moth caterpillar, and the flowers are a good nectar and pollen source for the bees.

Persimmons are often found near shorelines and other bodies of water on the Eastern Shore and can even tolerate salt spray in the air (though not around their roots). They have a deep tap root, which make them ideal for erosion control and for underplanting, but less ideal for transplanting. So, if you want to add a persimmon to your landscape, it is best to establish it while it is young so that its taproot can grow deep and undisturbed into your soil. Look for persimmon on the plant availability list posted on our website in March and then again in fall!

Recent trees previously named Adkins Arboretum Native Tree of the Year include Fagus americana (American beech, 2014), Cercis canadensis (Eastern redbud, 2015), Juniperus virginiana (Eastern red cedar, 2016), Sassafras albidum (Sassafras, 2018), Asimina triloba (paw paw, 2020), and Taxodium distichum (bald cypress, 2021).

Kathy Thornton
Land Steward

Photos by Kathy Thornton