The jujube, also known as the Chinese date, thrives in our Texas climate. It requires little care once established and lives a very long, productive life. So why is it so little known in our state and the country as a whole? To find the answer to that question we have to go back to the early 1900s when the first improved varieties were introduced to growers in the U.S. by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Frank N. Meyer, a plant explorer employed by the USDA, went to China in 1908 and started cataloging plants and trees that we did not have in this country. One such group of trees was the improved varieties of jujubes. Although the wild, very small fruited, jujube had been imported to the United States from Europe in the 1800s, it was not very good and of little value. These improved varieties were much better, and the USDA thought that they had a chance to become a great fruit for the Southwestern United States. Since they can grow on as little as 8 inches of rainfall a year, the thought was that they were ideal for many of the drier states, including Texas.
By the mid 1920s, the USDA at Chico, California, (where the plant introduction station was located) had sent propagated jujube selections to Texas and Oklahoma. Here is where the problem with public acceptance came into play. They had released several varieties with little information on exactly what to do with the fruit. They just thought that all fruit was good to be eaten fresh off the tree when it ripened. The Chinese, on the other hand, had developed the improved jujubes for several purposes. The first and foremost was to make dried dates from the fruit. The varieties that were intended to make dried fruit were not very tasty for eating fresh. So you got a sweet but dry tasting fruit when picked fresh from the tree. What the USDA did not seem to know was that the Chinese did have jujube varieties that were very good for fresh eating but only one of these varieties was imported and distributed by the USDA. Most of the varieties introduced were for drying or other processing.
So, the jujube got a bad rap (in today’s lingo). The one variety that was intended by the Chinese as a multipurpose variety, including fresh eating, is ‘Li’; but it is not the very best for the purpose. The better varieties for fresh eating were not imported by the USDA at all. The USDA at Chico did develop ‘Chico’ (or ‘GI 7-62’) in the 1950s that is good for fresh eating, but it was not in the original distribution and few people became aware it existed. It was not until the 1990s that the first batch of truly good tasting fresh eating jujube varieties were imported into the United States and then by a private individual. Since that time other good fresh eating varieties have been imported, including two that were released for sale in 2007.
Now, with these new varieties, we have jujubes that should be considered by all gardeners in Texas because of several reasons – the first, of course, is the new varieties taste good; second, they take little care after the first couple of years; third, they do not require any sprays and can be grown organically; and, fourth, they do not take much water once established.
With all this talk of taste, what do they taste like? The new fresh eating varieties taste like a very sweet apple when eaten fresh. Most people who taste these new varieties say that they taste great. Now, the varieties intended for drying taste very dry and mealy when eaten fresh (they just were not intended to be eaten fresh).
When dried, jujubes truly have a taste very much like a date. The fruit, when processed into jujube butter, was rated better than apple butter by the people at Texas A&M, some years ago. There are many other products made from jujubes, including whole pickled jujubes (like pickled crab apples), smoked jujubes, honey or sugar jujubes and spirit jujubes. And the fresh fruit can be used in place of apples in any recipe. Just peel and remove the single seed inside to use in your apple recipes. I would suggest the use of the larger jujube varieties in place of apples – varieties like ‘Li,’ ‘Shanxi Li’ and ‘Chico’ (‘GI-7-62’). They take less time to prepare.
There are more than 700 varieties of jujubes in China. In the United States we have slightly more than 40 varieties currently. Several of the varieties in the U.S. have more than one name. The variety developed by the USDA in the 1950s was originally called ‘GI 7-62,’ referring to the place in the row of trees being tested. Fruit growers gave it the name ‘Chico’ in memory of the abandoned Fruit Introduction Station at Chico, California. Then, there is the ‘Yu’ variety that was renamed ‘Silverhill’ and renamed again as ‘Tigertooth,’ the name that is currently in use. ‘Tigertooth’ can be grown in areas that have high humidity (most jujubes like dry weather).
The better varieties for fresh use are ‘Honey Jar,’ ‘Sugar Cane,’ ‘Li,’ ‘Shanxi Li,’ ‘Sherwood’ and ‘Chico’ (‘GI 7-62’). Of these the largest is ‘Shanxi Li’ and the smallest is ‘Honey Jar.’ ‘Honey Jar’ is the juiciest. ‘Chico’ (‘GI 7-62’) matures in mid to late season and ‘Sherwood’ is the last of these to ripen in early October. ‘Li,’ ‘Shanxi Li,’ ‘Honey Jar’ and ‘Sugar Cane’ ripen in August and early September. Also, a 2007 introduction called ‘Winter Delight’ is a good variety; at least in China it is considered a top variety.
The best drying varieties are ‘Lang,’ ‘Li’ and ‘Shanxi Li.’ But any jujube can be dried. The smaller varieties do not dry well unless you are very careful and watch them closely so that they do not get too dry. You want them spongy, not hard as rock, for a good dried jujube.
For processing, any jujube variety can be used. If you are making whole pickled jujubes, ‘Chico’ makes a nice looking finished product. Jujube butter can be made from any jujube. Use fruit that is in the yellow-green stage.
So is an ornamental variety, called ‘Contored,’ which has limbs that go off in odd directions, making a twisted tree form. It is very beautiful in winter without its leaves. It has good fruit in addition to its ornamental value.
A jujube tree is a medium sized tree growing to 20 to 25 feet tall. The largest jujube tree known in the United States is located in the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens. It is 43 feet tall and has a width of 34 feet. Jujubes live a long life, and there are jujube trees growing in China that are 1,000 years old. Here in Texas there are trees more than 70 years old that are still bearing full crops of fruit.
Jujubes can be grown in a wide range of soil types from sandy to clay. They have even been grown in rocky soils. Areas with poor soils may be good for jujubes. Of course, like most fruit trees, jujubes prefer a good loamy soil and will grow faster in such soils. On the poorer soils, jujubes will make a good tree, but grow a little slower.
Jujubes require only 200 to 400 hours of winter chilling (hours below 45ø) to fruit. Therefore, they can be grown all across Texas from the coast to the Texas Panhandle. They bloom in late April and May, missing the March frosts that affect many fruit trees.
Once established, jujubes can be maintained on as little as 8 inches of rainfall a year. They will not fruit well on 8 inches but they will live. For good fruiting, they need a total of 20 or more inches of water a year, but jujubes can surprise you. During the dust bowl years of the 1930s, jujubes growing at Dalhart, Texas, never failed to fruit.
Jujubes do not tolerate shade well. They prefer full sun but need little fertilizer. The only fertilizer that is needed occasionally is nitrogen, especially on poor or sandy soils. Compost worked into the soil is good for those who prefer organic methods.
Another great thing about jujubes is that they have few problems with insects and diseases. As I.E. Cowart, a horticulturalist, said many years ago, “Jujubes are easy to grow, not affected by insects and diseases to much extent and are drought resistant.” Oh, birds can peck a few fruit, and deer like to eat the fruit and sometimes eat the leaves of the better varieties, but generally jujubes are one of the easiest fruiting trees to grow. As one fruit grower said, “they demand less and give more than any other fruit tree we have. We love them.”
Fruit size is anywhere from 3/4 of an inch for the small and wild varieties to more than 2 inches for the larger varieties such as ‘Li.’ There are three color stages of fruit development: the green stage when they are growing, the yellow-green stage when they start to ripen and the red-brown stage of full ripe fruit. ‘Honey Jar’ and the ‘Li’ variety can be picked in the yellow-green stage for fresh eating, but most varieties need to start turning red-brown to achieve the best taste. The normal picking stage for fresh eating is when the fruit is
1/4 to 1/2 red-brown. For making processed products, picking in the yellow-green stage is best. For drying, pick from the yellow-green stage up to full red-brown and dry in a dehydrator. When jujubes are spongy soft they are ready to take out of the dehydrator. Do not over-dry because they can become very hard. Dried jujubes can be stored for several years and can be eaten dried or simmered in water to reconstitute.
All jujube varieties come into bearing early. Some even fruit the first year of planting. Usually the second year will see some fruit and by the third year you should produce a good crop.
Pruning is not recommended for jujubes other than to remove dead limbs and clean up the lower branches. Any suckers coming from below the graft union should also be removed.
Most jujube trees purchased from a nursery are grafted onto wild jujube rootstock. These wild rootstocks tend to sucker and will send up plantlets several feet away from the tree. Because of this root suckering habit, it is best not to plant trees next to the foundation of a house. If planted in a lawn area the sprouts can be easily mowed down and should never become a problem. In cultivated areas you can get rid of any sprouts when you cultivate.
‘Li’ and ‘Lang’ are the two most common jujube varieties found at a nursery. ‘Li’ is a good multiple purpose variety and can be eaten fresh or processed. ‘Lang,’ on the other hand, is mainly a drying or processing variety that is not very good eaten fresh. Most nurseries try to sell the two varieties together because they think that jujubes need cross pollination. But nearly all jujubes are self-fruitful, meaning that you only need one tree to produce fruit. There are, however, a few varieties that need cross-pollination to get the best crops.
Richard Ashton is the author of several books on fruit growing. The Incredible Pomegranate – Plant and Fruit, Jujube – The Chinese Date and his soon to be published book Sweet Cherries for Southern Orchards are available from Third Millennium Publishing at www.3mpub.com/ashton or they can be purchased through the Texas Gardener bookstore.
In addition to local nurseries, you can buy trees that are shipped bareroot in the late winter from these sources: