Persimmons and Woolly Worms
Mary Beth Sallee
Hart Co. News-Herald
The first day of fall officially begins September 23 of this year. With it comes not only thoughts of leaves changing colors and the holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving, but also cooler weather and the ever-pending question: What kind of winter weather will come our way?
In south central Kentucky and other Appalachian areas, many turn to handed-down folklore to make their own predictions. What seems to be the most popular winter weather predictors locally are persimmons and woolly worms.
According to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment website, the persimmon tree can be found throughout the dry woodland areas of Kentucky and often blooms in April.
The tree produces the persimmon fruit, which is a berry that is typically an orange color when ripe. With a size of approximately 1 to 2 inches in diameter, the persimmon ripens in September or October and is edible for both animals and humans.
Persimmons have been an important food staple for many throughout history. The fruit was dried by Native Americans and also used to make bread. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers boiled persimmon seeds as a substitute for coffee.
When persimmons are ripe, they are very sweet and can be used to make jams, pies, cookies, puddings, and more. When unripe, the fruit is high in tannin and like that of an astringent. In the unripe state, persimmons have been used to make tea for use in gargling for sore throats, as well as for treating heartburn, warts, stomach aches, diarrhea, and cancers.
In addition to being a source of food, folklore has it that the persimmon can also be used to predict winter weather.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac website, you can open a locally-grown persimmon, cut the seed in half, and look at the shape of the kernel inside of the seed. If the shape is like a fork, the winter will be mild. If the kernel is shaped like a spoon, there will be a lot of snow to shovel. If the shape is that of a knife, it means the winter will be severely cold with frigid winds that will “cut like a knife”.
Woolly worms, as they are so often called, are actually a type of caterpillar and not a worm at all. Also known as the woolly bear caterpillar, the woolly worm is technically the larva form of the Isabella tiger moth. This type of moth has a yellowy-cream coloration with small black spots on wings and thorax and black legs. During the winter, woolly worms hunker down and, in the spring, take its form as a moth.
The woolly worm itself has grown in reputation for being able to predict winter weather. This began in the fall of 1948 when Dr. C.H. Curran, a curator of insects, and his wife visited Bear Mountain State Park to view woolly bear caterpillars. During the trip, Dr. Curran collected as many of the caterpillars – or woolly worms – as he could in a single day. He determined the average number of reddish-brown segments and used that to forecast the winter weather that year. The experiment, which Dr. Curran continued until 1956, scientifically proved a rule of thumb for using the woolly worm to predict winter weather.
Over that span of eight years, Dr. Curran’s average brown-segment counts on the woolly worm’s body ranged from 5.3 to 5.6 out of the 13-segment total that the worms are divided into. This meant that the brown band took up more than a good third of the woolly worm’s body. Correspondingly, the winters were milder than average during those eight years of experiments. Therefore, Dr. Curran concluded that the folklore may be true.
The folklore states that the more reddish-brown that a woolly worm is, or the wider the rusty-colored band that it has, the milder the winter will be. A woolly worm that is more black in color predicts the winter will be more severe.
There are two generations of woolly worms each year, with the first appearing during the summer months of June and July. The second generation appears in September, of which these are the woolly worms that are considered the “weather predictors”. Woolly worms that are entirely black or entirely brown, or those that are white or yellow, are a different species of caterpillar and are not the type to use for winter weather predictions.
It’s important to note that most scientists discount the folklore of persimmon and woolly worm predictions as just that – folklore. Nevertheless, it still makes for a fun time in predicting winter weather.