Marylanders adore their state symbols and keep them near to their hearts. Some proclaim their tribal pride by wearing, eating, drinking and even collecting them.
However, state law raised the esteemed emblems to the pedestal.
On behalf of the citizenry, legislators have claimed a crustacean; a layered cake hailing from Smith Island; a reptile that’s also the mascot of the flagship university, the diamondback terrapin; and, yes, a state dinosaur.
In more recent years, the home of the Chesapeake Bay has acquired a state tree, a state drink, an exercise — walking — and a horse.
And last year the Maryland General Assembly added one more — a state spirit, Maryland rye whiskey.
But, despite laws placing these regional assets on high, there’s still something the state, one-quarter of which boasts farmland, does not have — its own fruit.
That’s a change one Maryland senator hopes to make this legislative session.
”No one else has the persimmon as their state fruit,” Sen. Arthur Ellis said. The persimmon is native to Maryland, and other front-runners for the title have already been claimed — such as the pawpaw, the state fruit of both Ohio and Missouri.
The Charles County Democrat filed a bill months ahead of this session’s first day to name the fruit he’s grown in his persimmon-packed orchard as Maryland’s own.
But the idea didn’t originate with Ellis, despite his 27-year passion for edible landscaping. The suggestion came from one of his youngest constituents and from Maryland’s smallest jurisdiction.
Ada Marciniak of Port Tobacco hatched the idea during a civics lesson when the now-13-year-old was in elementary school. The class sparked her curiosity about how laws were made and taught her two things: Maryland law established state symbols, and her state didn’t have a state fruit.
The orange-colored snack she and her siblings helped harvest from their grandmother’s backyard, and sometimes ate right from the tree, seemed like a natural fit. The tomato-shaped treat also shared the same color palette with other state symbols, such as the state bird, the Baltimore Oriole, and a crab after it’s been steamed. Even the state cat, a calico, has patches of orange.
The choice just made sense, her father, Andrzej Marciniak, said.
Marciniak, who serves as Port Tobacco’s top official, recalled mentioning his daughter’s proposal to their state senator about a year ago. Their tiny town, population 23, according to Marciniak’s last count, is nestled inside Ellis’ jurisdiction. When Ada heard Ellis had drafted the bill, she was surprised. Her father said, “She didn’t really anticipate it becoming a reality.”
Ellis said the persimmon to him represents “the beauty and the wonderful things that Maryland has to offer.” He said he drafted the bill after researchers told him no other state had the persimmon as its state fruit and that Maryland officially lacked one.
“I want us to be unique and different,” the military veteran and CPA said.
Ellis harvested hundreds of persimmons this fall and brought some into the Senate to share with his colleagues, he said.
Many of them were unfamiliar with the seasonal fruit Ellis described as crunchy on the outside and sweet, like a very ripe mango. But once they took a bite, he said, their curiosity turned to delight.
“Then it was like ‘Wow, this is one of the best fruits I’ve ever tasted,’” he said.
Seth Shames and his wife, Sophie Kasimow, own a two-acre persimmon orchard in Owings, which is in Calvert County, and both have full-time jobs.
Since taking over the orchard around five years ago, the parents of two young children have found a cohort of enthusiastic persimmon fans, including home bakers, chefs and a distillery that plans to make persimmon brandy.
“People are obsessed with these persimmons,” said Shames, adding he doesn’t need to advertise.
The Takoma Park couple bought the property once owned by Bill Preston, a University of Maryland horticulturist who experimented with Asian persimmons until he found a variety that flourished in Maryland. Preston settled on the Gwang Yang, and through a friendship that grew over the years, shared his passion with Shames and Kasimow.
Sadly, Preston died in 2019. Shames said the persimmon-for-state-fruit bill would be a nice tribute to Maryland’s horticultural history and his friend Preston. “I think he would be really excited about this.”
Joe Fiola, a researcher with the University of Maryland Extension specializing in growing grapes and small fruit, said the best time to harvest a persimmon is in late fall right after the first frost.
“It’s one of the sweetest, most complex fruits you could ever eat,” he said.
The fruit’s firm skin softens a bit as it ripens and can have a crunch, he said, but the persimmon’s flesh is smooth like a custard that to him tastes like an “intense apricot.” Some people make a hole in the top, use the skin as a cup and spoon out the flesh, he said. He warned against trying an unripe persimmon because of a strong astringent taste.
Just like their sweet relatives, they can be baked into pies and cakes, blended into a smoothie or placed on a salad.
The variety native to Maryland, Diospyros virginiana, is a deciduous tree that can grow up to 80 feet and thrives in climates across a large swath of the American Southeast, according to state and federal online resources. Persimmon branches produce yellowish-white flowers in spring, inviting pollinators, and yield fruit in late fall that can be easily plucked when ripe and feed an array of wildlife.
The senator’s bill doesn’t select a specific variety and has been referred to his colleagues on the Senate Education, Energy and the Environment Committee to review.
Marciniak said he promoted the bill on a trip to Annapolis on Monday. And, since lobbying for the persimmon has become a family affair, his second-eldest daughter, Josephine, will join her older sister to testify.
Marciniak said, “We’ll see how far we can go with it.”