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In recent years there has been a new arrival in the fruit department of your local grocery store. For a few weeks in winter, large, bright orange fruits appear, often called Kaki Fruit, or Sharon Fruit. These have become very popular and moved from specialized ethnic grocery stores into the mainstream. What very few people realize, as they eat that soft, sweet and aromatic flesh, is how very easy the trees that carry them are to grow. You could be picking your own fruit – which often sells for a premium price – right from an attractive tree in your own garden.
The Kaki Fruit grows on Persimmon Trees, and the fruit is also often called simply ‘persimmon’. These large fruits look a little like an orange beefsteak tomato, but smoothly round, with a large green or brown stalk attached. They are usually eaten when very soft and ripe, so for that reason they are hard to transport, damage easily, and are therefore expensive. Yet with your own tree you can pick them at the perfect point for eating, and simply carry them into your house to enjoy. Besides being good to eat fresh, persimmons are also great for baking, and persimmon muffins will be a great hit in your house. You can also make delicious jam from persimmons, add them to salads, and use them in pies and other baking. So why not grow your own, and enjoy all this right from your own garden?
While often grown as a fruit tree, Persimmon Trees do make attractive garden trees too. Even without its edible fruit this tree is a very worthwhile addition to your garden, and very easy to grow. The rounded crown is attractive, and the large leaves really draw attention to the tree. The flowers are small, but the orange and red fall colors are spectacular, and once the leaves fall the fruit remains hanging, making the bare tree look like it is decorated for Christmas with baby pumpkins. You can grow one on a lawn, or plant it behind flowering shrubs and among other small trees.
In a smaller garden you can still enjoy your own persimmons, by growing the tree as an espalier against a wall. That is, you tie the branches back to the wall, and spread them out as they grow. Trees grown this way take up almost no room, and smaller plants can be grown right in front of them. In cooler areas this is an excellent way to grow trees that like warmth, like the Persimmon Tree.
The Persimmon Tree is a small, deciduous tree with large leaves. Wild trees can grow large, but most garden varieties are smaller. Some are less than 15 feet tall, but most are between 15 and 30 feet tall when mature. The bark is distinctive, and an easy way to recognize the tree. It is deep gray in color and divided by both vertical and horizontal fissures into square blocks – a unique and attractive look.
The leaves are large, between 2 and 7 inches long, and they are oval, with a wedge-shaped base. The upper surface is glossy and dark green, and the underside is light green, covered with fuzzy brown hairs.
Grown from seed Persimmon Trees are either male or female, although sometimes there are both kinds of flowers on a single tree. Named varieties are of course female, and most do not need a male tree to develop fruit – described as parthenocarpy. In fact, pollination can mean lots of large seeds in the fruit, which makes them less attractive for eating. You will pick a large crop from a single tree, unlike many other kinds of fruit trees, where you need two trees to succeed.
The flowers are about one-inch across, with four petals. Female flowers are creamy-white, and occur singly, while male flowers are pink or reddish, and usually grow in groups of three. Female flowers develop into fruits, which are ripe by late fall, and hang on the tree into the winter. Fruits vary in size from about one-inch in diameter to almost four-inches across, and they can be spherical, pumpkin-shaped, or acorn-shaped. They mostly begin to ripen in November, and they can be left on the tree for weeks, only getting better in flavor, and they are not damaged by mild frost.
In most types of Persimmon, the fruit contains a large amount of tannic acid, which along with other chemicals makes them astringent, with a bitter, ‘fuzzy’ taste. Only when completely ripe and almost liquid do they become pleasant to eat, when the delicious flavors develop and the natural sweetness come through. Some varieties from Japan lack that effect, and they can be eaten while still firm. Which you prefer is a matter of personal taste, but if you are not used to this fruit, choosing a tree with no-astringent fruit is probably your best choice.
Persimmon Trees are easy to grow from zone 7 to zone 10. Some varieties, like the one called ‘Saijo’, will even grow in zone 6, in a sheltered spot. Grow your tree in full sun, or on a south-facing wall, especially in zones 6, 7 and 8. In hot zones it will grow in partial shade, but insufficient direct sunlight will mean the fruit does not ripen properly. Plant your tree in ordinary garden soil – richer, well-drained soils are best, with regular moisture, but this tree is easy to grow in most gardens with very little effort. They do not suffer from pests or diseases, so no spraying is needed, unlike other fruit trees, and producing clean, chemical-free fruit for your family is easy. No special pruning is needed, but you can trim the tree in late winter to keep it smaller and easier to harvest from.
Persimmon Trees are part of the plant genus Diospyros. This is a large and diverse group, with about 700 recognized species, growing throughout tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world. Many of the species are grown for their wood, which is the precious, black, ebony wood, prized for furniture. There are only about seven species that produce persimmon-like fruits, and two grow in America – the American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) from the south-east, and the Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana). Both produce edible fruit, but it is not comparable to that of the Japanese Persimmon, Diospyros kaki, which is the main species grown commercially and in gardens.
Most Persimmons are described as ‘astringent’, meaning that the high tannin concentration makes them bitter and dries up the mouth, until the fruit is full ripened. There is a story around that leaving them on the tree to freeze is necessary, but while freezing does soften the fruit, it doesn’t ripen it. If you do this or put it in the freezer and then thaw it out, you will be disappointed to find the astringent taste is still there. The secret is to bring the fruit indoors once it is well-colored, and then leave it in a warm place for a week or two, until it becomes very soft. Don’t be in a hurry, because the reward for your patience is worth it.
The flesh should be the consistency of soft-whip ice-cream for the best flavor. Full ripening transforms the fruit into something wonderful, and a very special winter treat. All that bitterness is gone, and it is replaced by a sweet, rich, delicious taste that is reminiscent of apricots, peaches and plums, all blended together in an aromatic, lush delight. The easiest and best way to enjoy a persimmon is to slice off the top and eat it out of the skin with a spoon. You can also top ice-cream or custards with pulp, for a truly delicious dessert.
Even a single tree gives a large crop, so as well as eating them fresh, persimmons are terrific for baking. The pulp can replace pumpkin in any recipe, and they make delicious moist muffins, pies and baked goods. You can also turn them into jams. Nothing will go to waste, even though the season is relatively short, going from mid-October to mid-November for most varieties.
Connoisseurs consider astringent persimmons have the best flavor, and for eating fresh, nothing beats the variety ‘Saijo’. The fruits are smaller than with other varieties, but this tree can be relied on to carry a bumper crop. The egg-shaped fruits are yellow-orange, with almost no seeds, and the flesh is outstandingly delicious.
For baking the variety ‘Hachiya’ is the queen. The large, deep orange-red fruits are shaped like an acorn, and each one can weight half-a-pound. They yield huge quantities of very soft pulp when ripe, and they are excellent for eating fresh, as well as ideal for the kitchen. One or two will yield enough pulp for most recipes.
If all that waiting for the fruit to ripen properly sounds complicated, or if you prefer your fruit firmer, so that you can cut it into slices, then you need a non-astringent variety of Persimmon. These are rarer and hard to find as trees, although they have been grown in Japan for centuries. The best, is ‘Fuyu’, a name that in Japanese carries a meaning of ‘wealthy’, or ‘richly-flavored’.
Varieties like this are a genetic mutation, with a gene that blocks production of most of the tannin. This makes them sweet and edible long before the flesh turns soft. You can peel a fruit just like an apple, and eat it in slices, or add it chopped to a salad. There are both savory and sweet recipes for these firmer fruits, and if you want them for baking, simply let them ripen indoors fully, and they become perfectly soft. The fruit is a little smaller than ‘Hachiya’ and rounded like a pumpkin. ‘Fuyu’ grows into a large tree, about 20 feet tall, and one tree will give you an abundant harvest.
Although a single tree will give you a good crop, unlike other Persimmon Trees it does produce more fruit with a pollinator. Since the ‘Hachiya’ variety usually has male flowers on it, growing the two together is perfect – one for baking and eating soft, the other for firmer flesh. You can enjoy the best of both worlds.