The persimmon is one of the most widely grown "exotic" fruits. But why exotic? Perhaps it's the Latin name, Diospyros, which literally translates as "food of the gods." What could be more exotic to any mortal than to sit at the table of the gods? Or perhaps it's because enjoying a ripe persimmon makes one feel graced as a god. Either way, the combination of brilliant orange color, succulent texture and intense flavor make for an unforgettable culinary experience.
In a more practical vein, the tree is graceful and beautiful all four seasons of the year. It is slow-growing, round-shaped and 15 to 20 feet tall. Smooth, lustrous dark green leaves turn a blaze of orange and red in fall. Branches tend to weep from the heavy fruit load -- be prepared to lend some support with a 2-by-4s. Once leaves drop, the colorful fruits hang more gloriously on the bare branches than any shiny globe on a Christmas tree. Since persimmons have few serious pest and disease problems, this underutilized tree is a prize to grow in any gardener's backyard.
The fruits are the biggest treat in growing persimmons. They range from the size of a half dollar to a small grapefruit, with colors from yellow to deep orange-red.
The Asian persimmon (Diospyros kaki) has been widely and wildly popular in Asia for centuries. In the United States, it grows anywhere south of USDA Zone 7 or anywhere the winter minimum temperature stays above 0°F. Asian persimmons are grown commercially in California and Florida and to a lesser extent in southeastern Texas.
The hardier American persimmon (D. virginiana) grows as far north as zone 5, or where winter minimum temperatures are -20° or higher. It is a larger and faster-growing tree, but produces smaller (11/2 inches in diameter), richer-tasting fruits than its Asian cousin.
Astringent or nonastringent? These are important terms in the lexicon of persimmon aficionados. Asian varieties may be either, while American varieties are only astringent. Astringent varieties contain alum, which makes your mouth pucker when the fruits are eaten before they're fully ripe. Eat astringent persimmons only after they turn soft and mushy and have developed full color. Nonastringent persimmons can be eaten while they are still hard, like an apple, or after they soften. Both astringent and nonastringent fruits are versatile in cooking; use them fresh in salads and puddings or dry them.
Planting and Care
You can plant a persimmon tree in early spring or in fall, depending on your climate. Most mail-order trees are bare root, harvested December or January and shipped December through March. Plant these as soon as you receive them. Since bare-root trees shock easily when transplanted, it's important to keep the roots moist. Transplanting containerized plants is usually more successful.
Both Asian and American persimmons grow best in well-drained and slightly acidic soil. Locate trees in full sun and space them 20 to 25 feet apart or 12 feet from a structure. American persimmons will tolerate a little shade and a wider variety of soil types than their Asian relatives. Roots are slow growing, so keep the tree well watered all season. A typical tree should begin bearing regular crops of persimmons at three to five years of age.
If new growth reaches about one foot a year, the trees have sufficient fertilizer. Too much fertilizer, especially nitrogen, will cause fruit drop. An annual application of 5 to 10 pounds of compost per tree in late winter will keep persimmons growing well.
Persimmon trees are mostly dioecious, meaning individual trees produce either male or female flowers. This means you'll need a separate male pollinator tree for the female tree to produce a crop. Although persimmons can produce fruit parthenocarpically (without pollination), Asian persimmons are less likely to drop fruit and tend to produce larger and more fruit when pollinated. 'Galley' and 'Gosho' are good Asian male pollinator varieties.
If you're growing American varieties, it's also best to have a male pollinator variety. 'Meader' is one of the few American varieties that is known to be self-fruitful, but even its fruits will do better if planted with a male pollinator such as American Male. Asian varieties will not pollinate American varieties, and vice versa.
Prune young trees in winter to a modified central leader system with six to eight widely spaced scaffold branches around the trunk to support future fruit loads. American persimmons tend to sucker heavily, so plan to cut suckers away every year. Once persimmons reach bearing age, little pruning is necessary. Thin fruits to one to two fruits per shoot, choosing the ones with the largest calyx.
Persimmons are ready to harvest from September to December, depending on the variety. Asian fruits hold tightly to the branches, so you may need pruners to remove them.
Harvest nonastringent varieties, such as 'Fuyu', when they're still firm but have full color. Harvest astringent Asian varieties when the skin of the fruit turns translucent and the calyx readily separates. Or leave either kind on the tree to ripen into the winter as long as temperatures don't get below the mid-20s. American persimmons drop off the tree when ripe.
If raccoons, opossums or birds begin to eat the ripening fruit first, pick the astringent varieties when they're just beginning to soften and place them in a plastic bag with a few bananas for 7 to 10 days in a warm room. The ethylene gas given off by the bananas will ripen the persimmons.
22 Kinds of Persimmons
Nonastringent Persimmons: Edible when either hard- or soft-ripe
Size and shape: Very large; round
Ichi Ki Kei Jiro
Astringent Persimmons: Edible when soft-ripe
Charlie Nardozzi is a senior horticulturist at the National Gardening Association.