Although birthday gifts come in all shapes and sizes, they don’t usually grow on trees — but sometimes they do.
My daughter Amber’s birthday presents were literally handpicked at an orchard in rural Hernando County where we recently went to get tree-ripened persimmons and chestnuts.
Amber’s birthday is in the first week of October, a fruitful period that coincides in Central Florida with harvest time for papayas, avocados, starfruit, bananas and chestnuts as well both hard and soft varieties of persimmons.
Although persimmons are unfamiliar to most Americans, our family has enjoyed the taste of these Asian delicacies for years. We discovered them shortly after we moved to Florida in 1987 and every year since then, we usually include a persimmon-picking expedition as part of Amber’s birthday celebration.
|Last year, we went on a birthday persimmon picking excursion with Amber in Gainesville|
“They’re like Florida’s version of northern apples,” the birthday girl said after biting into a fuyu persimmon she’d just plucked from the tree. “I really like them when they’re crisp and crunchy.”
|Sampling the goods during persimmon picking in Brooksville|
Persimmons come in two basic varieties, astringent and non-astringent fruit. Fuyu, the kind my daughter likes best, are in the non-astringent “crunchy” category, edible when their flesh is either hard or soft. Fuyu persimmons are in direct contrast to hachiya and other astringent varieties, which are edible only when their flesh is soft and squishy.
Astringent persimmons are the ones that give the fruit a bad reputation. One bite of an unripe fruit, and the mouth goes suddenly dry and feels like it is full of fluff. It’s an extremely unpleasant sensation and enough to make many people avoid persimmons from then on. That’s too bad because if they’d only waited until it was completely ripe before tasting, they would have had a completely different experience. When ripe, an astringent persimmon is extremely sweet with none of the negative characteristics of an unripe specimen.
Although both astringent and non-astringent persimmons turn orange when ripe, their different shapes make it easy to tell the two types apart. Non-astringent persimmons look like tomatoes. They are round with flat bottoms while astringent ones have an acorn shape with a broader top and pointed bottom.
The grove we visited on the outskirts of Brooksville had several species of both types of persimmon trees as well as numerous chestnut trees. After picking as many persimmons as we wanted, we turned our attention to the chestnut trees. While our family is well acquainted with persimmons and enjoys eating chestnuts, we had never harvested chestnuts before.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to harvest them this time either. The farm’s owners, Fred and Dorothy Galbraith, had already picked the chestnuts and extracted the nuts from their extremely prickly burs.
|Persimmon and chestnut farmers, Dorothy and Fred Galbraith|
“Better not touch them unless you have leather gloves on,” said Fred Galbraith when he saw me reach out toward the spiny bur. Heeding his words, I pulled my hand back but not before it brushed against the pointy spines. Goodness, how sharp!
“How do you pick them without hurting yourself?” I asked Fred as I inspected my hand.
His wife said, “You shake the tree and the ripe chestnuts fall to the ground. Fred wears thick leather gloves to pick them up and to open them to get the nuts.”
|Before you can roast a chestnut, it must be extracted from a very prickly covering|
We left the farm with a little over five pounds of chestnuts, many more pounds of persimmons and a quart jar of raw clover honey. Although we shared part of the bounty with our other children, Amber took home the most. Birthday gifts may not usually grow on trees but when they do, they can be especially tasty presents.
Want to pick your own?
Fred and Dorothy's u-pick farm is located on Hickory Hill Road in Brooksville. To see if any chestnuts or persimmons are still available call 352-799-4068.