My Quest for a Toronto Persimmon
and Other Native Edible Fruits
By Steven Biggs
Edible Toronto Magazine 2012
POINTING TO TWO TREES, Tom Atkinson explains that we have the makings of a golf club. “There you have the shaft of the club; here you have the head,” he says, pointing from one tree to the other. The shagbark hickory, with a bit of give in the wood, is ideal for the shaft. The American persimmon, as part of the ebony family, has extremely hard wood that is suitable for whacking the ball. Both are native North American species; and both have edible parts.
Our tree trek today is the result of my interest in another North American native, the pawpaw tree. Because of that interest, I tracked down Atkinson, a Toronto resident and native-tree lover, whose backyard is packed with pawpaw trees. After my initial visit and pawpaw primer, he mentioned a fine specimen of American persimmon growing here, in Toronto.
I took the bait.
Now, in the shadow of that persimmon tree, I’m learning far more from Atkinson than persimmon trivia: The nut of the shagbark hickory, a large native forest tree, is quite sweet. He points to a pin oak, explaining that the leaves are often yellowish here in Toronto, where such oaks have trouble satisfying their craving for iron. Waving toward a couple of conifers, Atkinson explains that fir cones point upwards, while Norway spruce cones point down. There’s stickiness on the bud of American horse chestnuts, but not on their Asian counterparts. And while the buckeye nut is normally left for squirrels, he’s heard that native North Americans prepared it for human consumption using hot rocks.
In his own garden, Atkinson’s focus is on native trees and shrubs, many of which are considered Carolinian and are, here in Toronto, at the northern limits of their range. My own interest in native trees and shrubs has gustatory motivations, but Atkinson’s came about because of his woodworking hobby. “I thought, if I was using wood, I should be putting it back,” he explains. While no longer woodworking, he still has a garden full of native trees and shrubs.
The edible natives in his garden include sweet crabapple, black walnut, bitternut hickory, red mulberry and beaked hazelnut. “It is really for the creatures of the area, all this bounty,” he adds. I’m taken aback by his generous attitude towards harvest-purloining wildlife, but it’s consistent with his approach of putting something back. Listening to Atkinson, I feel enthusiastic about growing natives for more than just their edible components.
Under the persimmon tree (a cousin of the Asian persimmons found at supermarkets), I’m dismayed to find that the fruits are still green. Atkinson cautions that the fruit are astringent and bitter when unripe, so I satisfy myself with snapping pictures. He explains that although this is a native North American species, it doesn’t usually grow wild this far north but grows well under cultivation. (I do find ripe, orange American persimmons that are perfect to eat a week later at Grimo Nut Nursery in Niagara, where the more temperate climate aids in ripening fruit earlier than in Toronto. They are sweet and velvety on the tongue; I’m delighted that the young persimmon tree I’d been nurturing in my garden for a year will have been worth the effort when it starts to fruit. More than that, the fruit-laden trees are beautiful, bedecked in ornament-like fruit in shades of green, yellow and orange.)
I hope my young pawpaw trees will soon bear fruit, as Atkinson’s do. For now, I live vicariously through his trees and his descriptions of the fruit, which bears some resemblance to mango. “The fragrance of the pawpaw when ripe is aromatic,” he says, adding that the texture is like custard. Each fruit usually contains four to eight seeds. “Like a watermelon, spit out the seeds,” Atkinson adds. He then surprisingly admits that, despite all the press about pawpaw, he’s not crazy about the fruit. “If it’s starting to turn brown, give it to the squirrels or raccoons,” he advises.
Pawpaws can be found growing wild on the north shore of Lake Erie into the Niagara region. Like the American persimmon, you’re not likely to find wild ones here in Toronto, but they do grow well here when planted. The large, lush leaves add a tropical feel to the garden.
When it comes to native edible plants, Atkinson believes that one of the best to grow in the city is the serviceberry. “There’s a whole bunch of them,” he explains, listing the related members of the serviceberry (Amelanchier) clan. They all have in common an edible fruit similar in size to a blueberry. Palatability varies by species and variety. The Saskatoon, which is also grown commercially, has consistently good fruit quality, according to Atkinson.
I’ve seen serviceberry widely planted in Toronto parks and it’s fairly common in the nursery trade. They can be grown as a small tree or a bush. I end up sharing my harvest with robins if I don’t pick them quickly enough. (Atkinson says that cedar waxwings like them, too.) Aside from the fruit, the leaves turn a vibrant orange-red in the fall and the bark, smooth and grey, is showy, too.
We discuss next the American hazelnut, another bush. It’s related to the European hazelnuts sold in grocery stores, but the nuts are smaller. Hazelnuts send out catkins in late winter, before any leaves are out. The attractive catkins earn this shrub a spot in my yard, which is a good thing because I’ve never had any nuts. I blame it on the lack of a pollinating partner…and on squirrels, a suspicion that Atkinson corroborates.
“They’re a delight to look at,” agrees Atkinson as we change gears and talk about the sweet crab, a wild crabapple. “It puts on a really good show of flowers,” he says as he describes a blush of pink on white flowers in the spring, adding, “It’s as good as a flowering dogwood but in a different sort of way.” The fruit is very waxy, and very attractive, having a greenish yellow colour. ”Squirrels don’t touch it,” he exclaims. He likes the fall leaf colours, which range from yellow to burnt orange.
On the culinary side, he says the sweet crab fruit is sour, but a perfect accompaniment when roasted with a rich meat such as pork, where the tartness of the fruit cuts the richness of the meat.
Atkinson speaks warmly of towering black walnut trees and of the beautiful dark wood they yield. He notes how common they are in the Niagara peninsula: “They’re almost like weeds.” I’ve often thought of them as weeds because of the plant-killing compound they give off. My neighbour’s black walnut stops me from growing anything in the tomato family at the back of my yard. Despite its hostile actions towards my tomatoes, I have grown fond of sitting under that tree, never really considering why. Atkinson says something that makes me realize the reason: “The shade under a walnut is really quite lovely,” he says, describing dappled light that results from the long leaf stalks adorned with small leaflets.
He discourages me from promoting the black walnut for edible uses because the nut meat is very difficult to extract: the shells are rock hard, requiring a hammer to crack. And the meat doesn’t come out easily like an English walnut, but has to be picked out. But by this point I’ve already decided to write about edible native plants because of their ornamental appeal.
I thank Atkinson for the tour and email correspondence. He plays it down, saying, “It spreads the word, and the plants, and brings nature closer to home [for] us all.” A couple of weeks later, Atkinson emails me a photo of a broken pawpaw branch. He writes: “Steve, here is what befalls a pawpaw when in an urban setting, and there are hungry raccoons about. I do not begrudge my masked friends at all for doing what inevitably they will do when after pawpaws.” It’s his way of putting back.