I wrote my last two columns on regional wild crops gathered and cultivated by American Indians and early settlers: the sunflower and the pawpaw. Now two more are ready for the plucking: persimmons and passion flower fruit, aka maypops.
A childhood memory: It’s a warm fall afternoon following many cold days. I’m recently old enough to be left home alone. On the edge of the yard, bare branches with round orange fruit stand against a deep blue sky. I decide to climb the tall, thin trunk for the tree-top reward of melty sugar-pulp on my tongue. There’s flat brown seeds to spit out. Leathery skin leaves the mouth numb. Cold bare feet wedge into a forked branch. Persimmons are bittersweet incarnate—an autumn-time memory of learning to brave out loneliness.
The persimmon feeds everyone in the forest, even ostensible carnivores like coyotes. You can see the tell-tale seeds in the scat left on woodland trails. Persimmons (diospyros virginiana) are so beloved by possums that another name for the tree is possumwood. Although both are found throughout the Southeast, as you can see, they share the specific epithet “of Virginia.” Rightly so, Virginia is for lovers.
Down by Volunteer Landing, an old persimmon tree is dropping fruit on the riverwalk now, making a big mess. Both persimmons and maypops are best eaten late in the season when wrinkled and faded. Do not eat a persimmon that is shiny and taut; that young fruit is not fit for human consumption.
I have just learned a wonderful word: bletted. Bletted fruit has passed through the jolly ripe phase and has entered the first stage of decay. The tannins and acids that make the young flesh taste so sharp and puckery have broken down into sugars. Like your divorced grandma, persimmons are sweeter “past their prime.” That is, their prime is later, and more wrinkly than one might expect.
The skin of the fruit of the passion flower (passiflora incarnata) is not edible. Like a pomegranate, the thick covering is peeled away revealing hard, black seeds in sour-sweet sacs. It’s lean foraging, and one can only imagine going to the trouble if this was the only sugar around. Young children denied candy are especially patient in digging out the smidgen of pulp in each fruit.
Early settlers called it “wild apricot” and made it into jelly. The Cherokee called it “ocoee.” Maybe you’ve heard the word as a place name. The Ocoee River, beginning west of Chattanooga and flowing though North Georgia, is popular with rafters. Ocoee Trail is a street in North Knoxville.
The passion flower hosts an orange and black caterpillar, the larval stage of the Gulf Fritilary butterfly, distinctive for the bold orange and white markings on its wings and body. Frits and maypops go together like possums and persimmons: The Fritilary is also called the passion flower butterfly.
The passion flower, if you’ve never seen it, is a crazy-looking flower, with whiskery purple and white striped filaments and an elaborate crown-shaped golden center. It blooms in summer on an unwieldy, tendrily vine. The fruit is smooth and egg-shaped, and drags the vine down in a tangled heap in the fall.
Maybe this bizarre appearance and untidy habit is why prominent garden clubs opposed the passion flower as the Tennessee state flower (chosen by school children by write-in vote in 1919) and instead championed the iris, originally from the Eastern hemisphere. Following the (probably) fiercest political battle for state flower in American history, the garden club ladies had their way and the iris replaced the passion flower by legislative decree in 1933. But that wasn’t the end of hostilities in the “War of the Flowers.” Forty years later, a compromise: A 1973 bill designated the iris the state cultivated flower, and the passionflower the state wildflower. The coup still riles up some passion flower defenders, certain Southern intellectuals doomed to teach in small-town high schools, who resent that imposter, the iris, now symbolizing our state while the more useful and deserving passion flower is pushed into the fencerows of history. (I never forgot, Mr. Ham!)
Foraging for food is romantic and interesting, and connects a person with one’s ancestors and animal kin. Go on, eat something wild.
Eleanor Scott's Possum City explores our urban forests, gardens, and wild places, celebrating the small lives thriving there. A freelance writer and columnist, she also maintains the Parkridge Butterfly Meadow in East Knoxville.
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