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Sweet on Japanese persimmon

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For information on Japanese persimmon cultivation and cultivars, go to www.crfg.org.

I never really cared about growing fruit trees - especially after reading the spraying schedule recommended in Clemson Extension publications. But during the 1980s and 1990s, my husband went through various stages of orchard fixation: peaches, pears, plums, apples - and then the coup de fruit, Japanese persimmons, Diospyros kaki.

This is not our native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) but an import from Asia. Japanese persimmon is a low-growing tree (12 to 18 feet), usually wider than it is tall. Its large, glossy green, leathery leaves transform into a spectrum of autumn fire just in time for Halloween.

Stoking this autumn blaze are baseball-sized fruits that begin to morph into hues of orange and gold in October. But pick them too soon, and you'll be sorry: Only the brave will try a persimmon before its time. Tannin accounts for persimmons' notorious pucker factor, but as the fruit ripens, tannin levels are reduced

Japanese persimmon fruits are designated astringent or nonastringent. Astringent fruits must be very soft - think pudding - before they are safe to eat, while nonastringent ones can be eaten when firm. How to tell the difference? Most nonastringent types are shaped like a Big Boy tomato with a flat bottom, while the astringent are more acorn-shaped, with a tapered end.

Astringent types can be picked when hard but fully colored. They then can ripen at room temperature. Nonastringent persimmons can be eaten in a range of ripeness from firm to soft. Both types also can be dried and will evolve into a treat with a sweet, datelike texture.

Persimmons are high in vitamin B2 and vitamin C, but beware of eating too many at one time. While highly prized in Asian cuisine, Asian cultures also use persimmons medically. Raw fruit is used to treat constipation; cooked fruit is used to treat diarrhea.

In the Thompson persimmon grove, November is harvest time. Because the fruit continues to ripen after the foliage falls, the trees appear to be decorated with little pumpkins - almost a "Martha" moment.

When we moved to our new house seven years ago, my husband immediately surveyed the property for suitable Japanese persimmon habitat. These persimmons like a sunny location and seem to thrive on average rainfall. They are not heavy feeders so fertilizing has been unnecessary in our clay soil. But persimmons develop a strong tap root, so be prepared to dig a deep hole.

The trees are often difficult to find in the local market, so most of my husband's trees have been mail ordered, arriving bare root in late fall. Popular nonastringent varieties include 'Fuyugaki,' 'Jiro' and 'Izu'; popular astringent varieties include 'Hachiya,' 'Tanenashi' and 'Eureka.'

We've noticed our crop is heavy every other year. Last year was especially good, so our expectations for this year are low. In a heavy year, a single branch on a young tree may have 20 to 30 fruit. The weight of this bounty often requires support so the branches don't break. According to the California Rare Fruit Growers Web site (www.crfg.org), alternate bearing is common and can be reduced by annual pruning to remove a bit of new growth as well as head back other growth.

Here is our persimmon irony: At our old house, eight persimmon trees produced tons of fruit, most of which turned into compost. Now we have just three young trees, but we have befriended several persimmonistas who inquire regularly as to the harvest forecast. A dozen persimmons is plenty for us, so in mid-November, I'll load shopping bags with fruit to share with our persimmon pals.

Some sources say that if you plant more than one Japanese persimmon cultivar, you improve fruit quality and lessen the effects of fruit drop. This is all my husband needed to know: Looks like our persimmon grove is expanding.

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