|By Keith Hansen
Looking for an attractive and easy fruit tree for your yard? Try the Asian, Oriental, Kaki or Japanese persimmon (Diospyros kaki). This handsome small tree with several common names is perfectly adapted to most of Texas (zones 7–9) with the exception of the Panhandle. It has few pests, is easy to grow, not picky about soil, provides delicious and attractive fruit, and is clothed in colorful foliage during the fall. What more could you want?
Most folks don’t notice persimmons until all the leaves have fallen in late fall, revealing a bounty of bright-orange globes hanging like little pumpkins from their branches. They provide a striking focal point in the landscape during an occasionally dreary time of year.
Asian persimmons are related to, and sometimes grafted onto, the common American persimmon (D. virginiana), which grows wild across the South. The common name “persimmon” comes from the Native American Algonquian name for our native species. American persimmon fruit is a favorite of wildlife (especially raccoons, skunks, deer and opossums), which relish the small, ripe, orange globes. But, as anyone who has ever bitten into one of the American fruits before they were fully ripe remembers well, the unripe fruit is a mouth-puckering experience! In 1612, Captain John Smith of Virginia wrote, “If it be not ripe, it will drawe a man’s mouth awrie, with much torment; but when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an Apricock.”
If you live in the drier South-Central parts of Texas, you may be familiar with another native persimmon, the Texas persimmon (D. texana), also called Mexican persimmon and chapote negro. Its sweet, seedy fruit is black when ripe and also a favorite of wildlife. This small tree is ornamental with attractive peeling bark that reveals a smooth trunk of varying colors.
American persimmons are dioecious, which means they produce either male or female flowers on separate trees. Therefore, both male and female trees are required to successfully produce a full crop. Asian persimmons are a bit different and may produce male, female and/or perfect flowers on the same tree. Because of this, many cultivars do not need cross-pollination to set fruit. According to one source, native and Asian persimmons will not cross-pollinate.
Asian persimmons are originally native to China and were introduced to the United States in the late 1800s from Japan, where they are an important fruit crop. Many varieties have been named and cultivated in Asia for centuries. Unfortunately, most folks in our country are unfamiliar with a persimmon’s unique, sweet taste.
Persimmons are well adapted to our state’s climates and soils. They are hardy to about 10º F and tolerate high summer temperatures. Like most fruit trees, persimmons do best in a well-drained soil. Because they have a low chilling requirement to break dormancy, occasionally a late freeze may damage their shoots.
When selecting cultivars for your landscape, there are a couple of important things to note. First, most American persimmons are astringent and unsafe to eat at this stage. Second, unlike most American persimmons, not all Asian persimmon varieties are astringent, and these non-astringent varieties can be eaten while still firm, like an apple, as they turn orange.
Astringency makes persimmons inedible until they have fully ripened and have also softened. This usually happens close to, or after, the first frost and usually after all the leaves have fallen from the tree. Even then, they might still be astringent until they have completely softened. When ripe, they develop a characteristic sweetness and delicious nutty flavor.
Another important characteristic is that some varieties require a pollinator, although most do not. Those not requiring a pollinator set fruit parthenocarpically, which means that, just like figs, some persimmons can set fruit without pollination. When pollination does occur, the fruit will be seedy and, some claim, better tasting. On many varieties, the flesh develops dark streaks when seeds are present. One variety commonly known as chocolate or maru persimmon develops dark-colored flesh, and though I have not tasted it, it is reported to be very delicious.
Seedless, non-pollinated fruit are more likely to drop prematurely during stressful, dry summers. In contrast, the seeds within the pollinated fruits help the fruit stay more firmly attached to the plant. Asian persimmons often drop most of their fruit prematurely the first few years after planting, until the tree becomes well-established.
In Asia there are more than 2,000 named varieties, although only about 100 are considered important in Japan. Far fewer varieties are usually found in the United States.
A few varieties you may be able to find include:
‘Eureka’ is a heavy producing, medium-sized, flat-shaped, orange-red variety of high quality. The astringent fruit contains seeds, if pollinated.
‘Hachiya’ is a productive, large, cone-shaped, seedless, astringent variety with bright orange skin. The tree is vigorous, upright, with good ornamental quality.
‘Tane-nashi’ is another highly ornamental variety. It is a cone-shaped, orange-fruited, astringent variety. The seedless fruit store very well on the tree.
‘Tamopan’ is a productive, large, orange, flat-shaped, astringent variety with a ring constriction near the middle of the fruit. The tree is vigorous and very upright.
Chocolate or maru (nicknames) has dark flesh.
‘Sheng’ bears large, flat, orange fruit.
‘Gailey’ fruit is small but with good flavor. It also produces many male flowers and is frequently used for increasing pollination in orchards.
Fuyu (‘Fuyugaki’) is a variety I grow in my Tyler garden and it produces regularly every year. It can be eaten firm after it turns orange or left to soften to enjoy its delicious pudding-like consistency. It is a medium-sized, seedless variety with a flattened shape and is prone to premature fruit drop. Its growth habit is spreading rather than upright.
‘Jiro’ is a good producer and a cold-hardy variety, bearing large, round fruit.
‘Gosho’ produces fruit that is similar to, but much larger than, Fuyu.
‘Suruga’ produces very sweet, non-astringent fruit.
‘Izu’ is a smaller tree that produces round, medium-size fruit about a month earlier than Fuyu.
Persimmons should be planted in full sun and in well-drained soil. Plant bare-root trees at the same time as other fruit trees — in January and February, as they become available in nurseries or through mail order. Asian persimmon trees should be planted about 15 feet apart; American persimmon trees can grow much larger and will need more elbow room.
Non-astringent varieties such as Fuyu and ‘Jiro’ tend to be less cold-hardy than astringent varieties. So, if you live in North Texas, astringent cultivars will be more reliable.
Although persimmons are drought tolerant, they will do much better and hold their fruit better, if given regular watering during drier times of the year, especially the first few years after planting. They do not need much fertilizer, but they do enjoy moderate amounts of nitrogen and potassium. Be careful, though. Too much nitrogen may cause fruit to drop prematurely, so get your soil tested before adding fertilizer.
Unlike peaches and plums, which need regular pruning, persimmons only need occasional pruning to help develop an attractive branching frame that looks good in the landscape. Early pruning should be done to develop strong branches that will be able to bear a heavy crop of fruit. Newly planted persimmons should be trained to develop a main central leader. Remove branches that develop narrow crotch angles with the trunk. Also remove vigorous, upright shoots and branches that cross or rub.
Fruit should be thinned in late spring, if there is a heavy fruit set. Leave one to four fruit per shoot, spaced about 6 inches apart. Persimmons tend to bear heavily every other year, with few fruits in alternate years.
Fall is harvest season, but ripening varies by variety from October to November. This roughly corresponds to the time of the first frost in most of the state. Fruit may be stored on the tree, or it can be harvested and kept at room temperature, where it will continue to ripen and soften. Remove fruit from the tree by cutting, not pulling, leaving a bit of fruit stem attached to the fruit.
Mature, hard astringent persimmons can be stored in the refrigerator for four or five weeks. They may be frozen and kept for 6 to 8 months. They soften and are ready-to-eat when thawed. Non-astringent persimmons lose quality rapidly in the refrigerator. They may be stored for up to a week at room temperature. Eat them firm, like apples, or allow them to soften so you can enjoy them with a spoon like a pudding cup. You can also spread the soft fruit on pancakes or use in your cereal.
Persimmons are good for you! They have lots of fiber and are high in vitamins A and C. Fresh persimmons are delicious. Eat them by themselves or chop them as additions to salads. They can be used in baked goods — breads, puddings and pies. In Asia, firm, astringent persimmons like ‘Hachiya’ are often dried to produce hoshigaki. Hoshigaki involves massaging the fruits once a week for about a month and hanging them to dry, resulting in something like a date that is firm but soft with a naturally sweet, sugary coating.
If you are unfamiliar with persimmons, buy some from your grocery store this fall and see why the botanical name ascribed to them (Diospyros) refers to divine fruit. After tasting them, you will want to seek out a source for these easy-to-care-for ornamental trees for your own yard.