By Dan L. Cassens, Don Carlson, Lenny Farlee and Joey Gallion
Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana L.) ranges from Connecticut to southern Florida west through central Pennsylvania to southern Ohio then west to south eastern Iowa, south to eastern Kansas and eastern Texas. The species is native to only about the southern third of Indiana. There are several species on a worldwide basis. The largest diameter native tree reported is 4.01 feet at 4 1/2 feet above the ground. More typical trees will be up to 24 inches in diameter and 60 feet in height.
Biology and Management of Persimmon1,2
Persimmon is normally a minor species in a variety of hardwood and southern softwood forests, but it can be a common invader of abandoned pastures or other disturbed areas in some parts of its range. Persimmon grows on a wide variety of sites from dry to wet and can be a strong competitor on poor growing sites. Growth is normally slow, compared to many associated species, but it is rated as shade tolerant, so it can survive under the shade of competing trees for many years. Very little information is available regarding specific management recommendations for persimmon, as it is rarely a target species for active management.
Persimmon is a highly favored wildlife food source. The large fleshy fruits are actively sought by many game and non-game wildlife species. In addition, human consumption of the fruit in a variety of forms is an important local practice. Mitchell, Indiana and Colfax, NC each have a persimmon festival emphasizing the fine eating qualities of the ripened fruit. It should be noted that un-ripened fruit is highly astringent. To collect ripe fruit look for soft, bright orange fruits that have fallen to the ground. Some examples of cultivation and selection of superior fruit varieties for American persimmon exist, and persimmon pulp and fruit is sold as a local specialty product in some areas. If fruit production is desired for either wildlife or human consumption, release of the tree crown from competition by thinning nearby competitors will provide additional growing space and may encourage increased fruit production. Select areas with several persimmon in the locale or where fruit production is already evident, as persimmon trees may be male, female, or both. Persimmon is also noted to respond to fertilization, which may also enhance fruit production. The best fruit production is stated to begin at about age 20, but author Lenny Farlee has seen trees planted on good soils in Indiana produce fruit in five years. Trees produced from grafted cuttings of mature trees may produce fruit even faster.
Persimmon may be propagated in several ways. Seedlings available from tree nurseries will provide the most reliable artificial regeneration approach. Planting collected seed in the fall can also produce some seedlings. Wildlife can plant new trees through dissemination of seed. Persimmon has a strong taproot, so transplanting is very difficult.
Fire may either promote or decrease persimmon, depending on fire intensity. Light intensity or fast moving fires that don’t heat deeply into the soil can result in prolific stem and root sprouting of existing persimmon, or provide space for persimmon to become established from seed. High intensity fires that heat the soil may kill persimmon root systems, resulting in decreases or elimination of persimmon on the site.
The U.S. Forest Inventory Analysis for Indiana indicates that there are 15.7 million cubic feet of Persimmon ranging in diameter from 5.0 to 16.9 inches. Dogwood, a species that was also used for many of the same purpose has an inventory of 4.9 million cubic feet ranging from 5.0 to 10.9 inches in diameter. Kentucky Coffeetree, probably a better known minor species has only 2.6 million cubic feet ranging from 5.0 to 16.9 inches in diameter.3
Persimmon wood is one of our more unique ones and at one time a very important species. Some of the more common uses include golf club heads (http://www.louisvillegolf.com/), textile shuttles, billiard cues, bobbins, spools, drum sticks, flutes, long bows, eating utensils, shoe lasts or any application that requires a dense heavy wood which resists denting and wear. Substitute material or other species have replaced Persimmon in many of these applications and the species is not listed in many of the basic reference manuals. However, it could be of interest for the custom wood working and home workshop enthusiast looking for something unique and with a story to tell.
The wood is semi-ring porous, and the grain appears similar to hickory or walnut, but with smaller pores. The rays or food storage tissue in Persimmon are storied. They appear as very minute ripple marks or storied on a split tangential surface. Storied structure is very unusual in our domestic tree species and because of this, Persimmon is normally included as an example in any wood identification course.
Wood Color and Texture
The sapwood is white to creamy white when first cut. If dried quickly, the surface of the sapwood may remain cream color or turn gray. In the senior author’s experience oxidation stain develops easily. Oxidation stain is a chemical reaction in the wood as the living cells die a slow death. The wood can turn gray or dark brown from the surface in towards the center or the surface can dry looking like the green sapwood with the interior of the piece turning dark brown. Mottling of the white and brown is probably more likely to happen. The usually small heartwood, or areas around knots or other wounds, are black. This species is a member of the ebony family, and some woodworkers use the black wood (when large enough) as a substitute.
The machining characteristics of Persimmon have not been carefully documented. As a hard dense wood, it should turn well and take a fine polish. It is reported as a hard to glue species.
The steam bending characteristics of persimmon have not been carefully documented.
Dry kiln schedules are reported for 4/4 through 8/4 stock as well as for golf club heads and shuttles. The wood is intermediate in its ability to dry without serious defects. Checking may be an issue.
At 12 percent moisture content, the wood weighs 52 pounds per cubic foot making it one of our heavier woods. The mechanical properties based on five trees from Missouri are relatively high. (Table 1).
The total volumetric shrinkage from green to oven-dry conditions is 18.3 percent or one of the highest for our domestic woods. The radial and tangential shrinkage are likewise high. The senior author has experienced excessive warping during drying, probably due to the high shrinkage.
Decay and Insect Resistance
Being mostly sapwood, the species will have no decay or insect resistance. Wood borers in stored products can be an issue.
Grading and Value
The species is not mentioned in the National Hardwood Lumber Association Rules for the Measurement and Inspection of Hardwood and Cypress. Therefore, if it were to be graded the “standard” rule as described in the rules book would apply.
Figure 1, made up of several pieces of Persimmon lumber, demonstrates the variation in color and streaking that can occur. Board five (far right) is only partially surfaced. The unsurfaced white to light yellow center bottom portion is the color of unstained sapwood. The surface of the board dried rapidly and did not stain. Just beneath the surface, drying was not as rapid and the wood oxidized or stained to the brown color seen. The brown color was exposed as the board was planned. The nearly black wood at the bottom center of board 5 is heartwood. Heartwood is also evident at the bottom of board 3 and the small knots in board 4 are also black heartwood. Board 2 is stripped or variegated as is the large knot at the top of board 5 due to different degrees of stain as affected by how the piece dried. The horizontal somewhat white marks near the middle of board 3 and 4 are sticker marks. This is where a narrow strip of wood was placed to allow the boards to dry. In this case moisture moved from the wet board to the dry sticker allowing the board to retain its white color deeper into the piece.
1 Morris, Robert C. 1965. Common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana L.). In Silvics of forest trees of the United States. P. 168-170. H.A. Fowells, comp. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Handbook 271. Washington, DC.
2 Halls, L.K. Diospyros virginiana L. Pages 294-298, in R.M. Burns and B.H. Honkala, Silvics of North America: Volume 2. Hardwoods. USDA Forest Service Agriculture Handbook 654. Washington, D.C.
3 Miles, P.D. Fri. Oct. 31 09:07:30 MDT 2014. Forest Inventory EVALIDator web-application version 1.6.0.01. St. Paul, MN: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest.
4 Forest Products Laboratory, Wood Handbook: Wood as an Engineering Material. General Technical Reprint FPL-GTR-190.2010.
5 Markwardt, L.J. and T.R.C. Wilson. 1935. Strength and Related Properties of Woods Grown in the United States, USDA General Technical Bull. No. 479, 99pp.
Dan L. Cassens - Professor and Extension Wood Products Specialist with the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University.
Don Carlson - Sustaining Hardwood Extension Forester with Purdue University.
Lenny Farlee - Extension Forester with the Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center located at Purdue University.
Joey Gallion - Forest Resource Information/Forest Inventory Program Coordinator with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry.