The Ebony family (Ebenacea) consists of two genera, Euclea and Diospyros. The family contains between 400 and 500 species worldwide. The former genus contains ebony trees while Diospyros is made up of persimmons. Only two species of permisson are native to North American, the Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana) and the common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana.)
The common persimmon is found in about 3/5 of the lower 48. According to USDA publications, it grows in humid areas including the Mississippi River Valley, Long Island, and South Atlantic and Gulf states. For commercial development this same source recommends planting in areas that receive 48″ of precipitation.
This is a flowering tree. The flowers of the male and female are distinctive, with white-green male flowers in clusters. Female flowers are singular and more yellowy. The sex lives of these trees may be very involved as normally individual trees are either male or female. Occasionally male flowers appear on female trees and sometimes the flowers can self-pollinate.
Although occasionally referred to as white ebony, the uses of persimmon lumber are limited at least in part because of the small size of the tree. At one time golf club heads were made of this wood; according to Woodworking Network this is now more of a novelty. Due to its strength, persimmon wood has also been used for textile shuttles. Other uses include drumsticks. The wood can be turned and shaped with very sharp instruments.
The genus name Diospyros means fruit of the gods. Persimmons produce an edible fruit that is astringent when not fully ripe but becomes sweet after a frost (Sibley Guide to Trees, 2009.) A writeup from the University of Vermont reports the fruit increases antioxidant activity, is an anti-inflammatory, and helps prevent atherosclerosis. It is also reported to be high in vitamin C and calcium. Often the fruit, which is technically a berry, is dried, made into puddings, pies, jellies, cookies and even used to brew beer or make wine. This website has a recipe for beer from wild persimmons. The Old Farmers Almanac includes a recipe for persimmon bread as well.
Parts other than the fruit and lumber also have uses. The bark has been used in various forms to treat thrush, hemorrhaging, diphtheria, and even gonorrhea. The leaves may be made into a tea with purported health benefits. A newspaper article on the history of persimmons in the south mentions the seeds were used as buttons during the Civil War, while a second source says during that same war the seeds were ground up and used as a coffee substitute.
The tagged Diospyros virginiana in City Park is a little more difficult to locate than other trees. To find it go to the western edge of the ball diamonds. It is near the southern tip of the northern field and is just outside the park boundaries in the golf course. Its unusual bark makes it easy to recognize. The National Champion Common Persimmon in Suffolk City, Va has a much larger circumference at 152 inches!