Jim McGuire: Cherish this ‘between-time’

I recently checked out my local possumwood patch. What? You’re unfamiliar with possumwood? Well, so was I until a few years ago when I stopped by to visit a fellow brook-trout devotee and sometimes poet at his charming rural homestead in North Carolina.

“Com’on,” he said that first morning, sliding his chair back from the breakfast table. “I need to check my bees in the possumwood grove.” I’d never heard tell of a possumwood grove. But I’d just helped consume one of those take-no-prisoners Southern meals. This one involved a mounded feast of cathead biscuits, real churned butter, sage gravy, smoked sausage and bacon from a locally-raised hog, eggs from my friend’s backyard chickens, various home-canned jams and jellies, plus the additional sweet choices of sorghum molasses or golden comb honey from his hived bees.

Whatever a possumwood grove was, I was fully fortified and game to go! His possumwood grove turned out to be thirty or so persimmon trees. Not planted in any particular rows or arrangement that I could tell—though every tree pushed 40 feet, which meant they’d all been set out at the same time.

Several white beehives with their stacked supers were scattered among the trees. It was mid-summer, humid and hot, but those persimmons had been spaced close enough so their canopies almost interlaced. The possumwood grove was cool and shady.

“I keep my hives in here,” my host said. “Everything’s cooler—the bees do better and have less trouble maintaining their honeycombs.”

“I’ve never heard a persimmon tree referred to as a possumwood,” I told him. “Possumwood is an old Southern term,” he explained. “My Grandma Klees, on my mother’s side, was Pennsylvania Dutch. She called ‘em sugarplums.”

Live and learn. Possumwood and sugarplum are both long-used names for the American persimmon tree, ” — i.e., Diospyros virginiana.

He went on to tell me that in mid-to-late fall, when his trees started dropping their ripe persimmons, they gathered them in peck baskets.

“My wife cans a bunch in jellies and jams, bakes them in cakes and bread, makes pudding and syrupy topping we put on ice cream. We also dry persimmons. I make persimmon wine and something a little, uh, harder — more ummph! — a sort of persimmon brandy. It’ll knock yer socks off!” he said, grinning.

And it would…and did. Though I had the good sense to not sample his brew until I got home.

I always meant to get back down for a revisit during persimmon time. That many big trees loaded with their unimaginable bounty of luscious ripe fruits would certainly have been worth seeing and sampling. But alas, time moves on.

My poet friend is now fishing for trout in some coldwater tributary of the River Styx. I have to be content with my own Ohio version of a possumwood grove, except numbers-wise, the persimmon tree count in my spot is too meager to qualify as a grove. At best it’s a possumwood patch.

The place I refer to as my possumwood patch is a handful of trees — five, to be precise — located in an overgrown field a few miles from my home beside the Stillwater.

Many decades ago this land was once part of a sprawling farm. It’s now public. I often visit for a quick amble.

The family homestead was located on a low hilltop which overlooks the little creek. My possumwood trees are obviously part of what must have been a sort of dooryard orchard, given that several gnarly old fruit trees are also located in this same five-acre expanse.

Apple, pear, plum and possumwood trees are all nearly hidden amongst the tall grass, tangled weeds and snarls of head-high blackberry briars. From the bordering scrub woods, you really have to pay attention to notice them—and only a committed brush-busting tote-sack carrying forager is apt to make the effort to bull their way over for a closer look. The old apple trees are in sad shape, just doing their best to survive. However, they still manage to put out a few apples—not pretty fruit, but tasty. The pear and plum seemed to have fared better; at least the trees look to be in better shape. Their productiveness, though, is spotty—some years prove a total blank.

Still the other morning, I managed to fill my small collecting bag with sweet persimmons! And lots more are ripening on the trees. I’m truly grateful. This has been a bust year for me when it comes to pawpaws — my favorite wild treat. Persimmons are my second favorite tidbit. So at least I’m not going to do without on both counts.

Round two isn’t a sure thing, of course. I have to beat the deer, squirrels, groundhogs, skunks, raccoons, possums and assorted birds. But I’m game to try, and being desperate, will check often. Surely the local critter horde can’t steal ‘em all!