BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Have you heard of a persimmon seed forecasting a harsh winter? Or a woolly worm caterpillar forecasting a snowy winter?

In this installment of “Weather Wednesday,” join me as I share these fun folklore concerning winter weather.

First, what is a persimmon seed? A persimmon is a bitter fruit that resembles a small tomato. Like a tomato, a persimmon is a fruit, but with yellow to reddish-orange skin. However, unlike the tomato, which grows on a vine, persimmons grow on trees and are typically harvested in early fall.

Persimmons range in size and shape, too. You can them as small as three-fourths of an inch in diameter or as large as three and a half inches in diameter. Some are rounded, while others are heart- or pumpkin-shaped.

Now, how can this little fruit predict winter? According to the Farmer’s Almanac, you can get a sense of the coming winter based on the shape of the cotyledon inside a ripe persimmon. A few of the shapes and corresponding weather patterns include:

  • Fork shape = winter will be mild
  • Spoon shape = there will be a lot of snow
  • Knife shape = winter will be bitingly cold that “cuts like a knife.”
Persimmon seeds split. Location Ruffner Mountain

These persimmon seeds are from Ruffner Mountain in Birmingham. What do you think? I see a knife and a spoon. Could that mean we have a cold winter bringing some of that devil’s dander (aka: snow)? Only time will tell. I suppose if the winter is a bit harsh, the persimmon seeds warned us.

If the persimmon seeds don’t convince you, also look for the woolly worm, as it is most commonly referred to in the South. I have leaned that our friends up North call them woolly bear caterpillars. As the folklore goes, these furry insects also can give us a glimpse at winter’s wrath, all based on their black bands.

The National Weather Service notes that according to regional folklore, the size of the black bands on the woolly bear in autumn varies proportionately with the severity of the coming winter. The longer the woolly bear’s black bands, the longer, colder, snowier, and more severe the winter will be. Similarly, the wider the middle brown band is associated with a milder upcoming winter. 

The position of the longest dark bands supposedly indicates which part of winter will be coldest or hardest. If the head end of the caterpillar is dark, the beginning of winter will be severe. If the tail end is dark, the end of winter will be cold. In addition, the woolly bear caterpillar has 13 segments to its body, which traditional forecasters say correspond to the 13 weeks of winter.

As with most folklore, there are two other versions to this story. The first one says that the woolly bear caterpillar’s coat will indicate the upcoming winter’s severity. So, if its coat is very woolly, it will be a cold winter. The final version deals with the woolly bear caterpillar’s direction of travel of the worms. It is said that woolly bear’s crawling in a southerly direction are trying to escape the cold winter conditions of the north.  On the other hand, woolly bear’s crawling on a northward path would indicate a mild winter.

Weather folklore is fun and in some cases can pan out, but for our woolly worm, the coloring is based on how long the caterpillar has been feeding, its age, and species. The better the growing season is the bigger it will grow and this results in narrower red-orange bands in its middle. Thus, the width of the banding is an indicator of the current or past season’s growth rather than an indicator of the severity of the upcoming winter. 

Regardless, if the persimmon seed or the woolly worm have any true ability to forecast the winter, cooler days are just around the corner. The first day of winter is Dec. 1, when temperatures will start getting consecutively cooler. Astronomical winter begins at 9:59 a.m. Dec. 21.