Persimmon fruits have become hot items in the produce department in the last few years. these exotic-looking bright orange fruits, which look a little like a beefsteak tomato, are available in late fall and early winter, often at relatively high prices. They appear on the menus of many restaurants, and in recipes, and many gardeners are thinking about growing their own.
What Kinds of Persimmons are There?
The persimmon most people are interested in, and the one sold in stores, is the Japanese Persimmon (Diospyros kaki). It is often also called Kaki Fruit, to distinguish it from the American persimmon, a tree that is sometimes grown in gardens, but which has fruit of a very erratic quality. The Japanese Persimmon, on the other hand, has been cultivated for thousands of years in China and Japan, and varieties have been selected over those years which are reliable croppers, with top-quality fruit. If you want to eat your own persimmons, then the Japanese Persimmon is the way to go.
Although there are many, many varieties of persimmons listed, most of these are only found in the Far East, and most are only rarely cultivated. From an eating perspective, there are two broad types of persimmon – astringent and non-astringent.
The astringent type is the most normal, and these fruits contain a large amount of tannin, and other chemicals that give the fruit a bitter, ‘fuzzy’ taste, even when the fruit is well-colored, and beginning to soften. Many people have given up on eating them because of this, not realizing that the secret is to wait until the fruit is fully ripe, and the flesh has softened to the point of being almost liquid. Persimmons left on the tree after the leaves fall will continue to ripen in the colder air, but it is not true that they need to freeze before they are edible. People confuse the softness caused by freezing with the softness of a fully-ripe fruit. Some people even claim that you should freeze the fruit, and then thaw it before eating.
The way to get a persimmon fully ripe is just to wait. Bring them indoors and place them in a warm room. They will continue to ripen after picking, and once they are completely soft, they are ready. A properly ripened persimmon is a transformed fruit from its unpleasant taste when under-ripe. All that bitterness is gone, and it is replaced by a sweet, rich, delicious taste reminiscent of apricots, peaches and plums. The best way to enjoy a persimmon is to cut open the top and eat it out of the skin with a spoon. You can also spoon the pulp over ice-cream or custards, and they truly are delicious.
As well as eating them fresh, persimmons are also great for baking. The pulp can replace pumpkin in any recipe, and they make delicious moist muffins, pies and baked goods. You can also make delicious jams from them, so nothing will go to waste, even though the season is relatively short, going form mid-October to mid-November for most varieties.
Two varieties of astringent persimmons stand out. For eating fresh, nothing beats the variety ‘Saijo’. The fruits are smaller than with other varieties, but they are carried in abundance on the tree. 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 can weight half-a-pound each, and they yield abundant amounts of almost liquid pulp. Good for eating fresh, but also perfect for baking, since just one or two will be enough for most recipes.
If you don’t like the idea of waiting carefully for full ripening, and you would perhaps also prefer a firmer fruit that you can slice, then a non-astringent variety should be your choice. These are much rarer, but there is one, which the Japanese call ‘wealthy’, and we call ‘Fuyu’ or Fuyukaki. This variety, and others like it, have a gene which stops them producing all that tannin, so the fruit is sweet and edible long before it turns soft. You can use the flesh in sweet or savory dishes, or of course peal it and eat it like an apple, which is what most aficionados of them will do. You can of course also let them become fully ripe, and then use the pulp for baking. ‘Fuyu’ is similar in appearance to ‘Hachiya’, but usually smaller, and completed rounded at the bottom, without the slightly pointed bottom which makes ‘Hachiya’ look a little like a very large acorn.
The Fuyu Japanese Persimmon grows into a large tree, over 20 feet tall, and one tree will give you an abundant harvest. Unlike many other varieties, it does produce the most fruit if grown with a pollinator, although this is optional. A good pollinator tree to grow is ‘Hachiya’, since that tree is small, and its flesh is excellent for baking, you will have two complimentary trees, without taking up a lot of extra garden space.
Where Can I Grow Persimmons?
All varieties of the Japanese Persimmon grow well in zones 8 and 9. Many will also grow in zone 7, and some will grow in zone 6. If you want to grow one in zone 6, a good choice is the Saijo Japanese Persimmon, which is hardier than most others. The fruit is smaller, but of top-quality, and especially good for eating fresh, straight out of the skin.
In zone 6 and even in zone 7, you will get the best results if you plant your tree at the foot of a south-facing wall, and then tie the branches back onto the wall as it grows. This way it will receive the most possible sun and warmth, particularly in early fall, and you will get the best harvest. You can also grow this tree in a cool greenhouse or a large, sunny atrium, in any zone, as long as you keep the temperature above 20 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. Again, growing it on a wall inside will give the best results. For indoor growing choose a smaller variety, like the very popular Hachiya Japanese persimmon, which only grows to around 12 feet tall, even outdoors. Since persimmons are usually self-pollinating (or more strictly speaking, develop seedless fruit without needing pollination) you only need to grow one tree, which saves a lot of space.
What Conditions Do Persimmons Need?
Persimmons grow best in full sun, although they can tolerate some shade when grown in warmer zones. They do best in rich, moist, well-drained soil, although they are not a fussy tree, and grow well in most ordinary garden conditions. A great advantage of persimmon trees over other fruit trees is their resistance to diseases and pests. They don’t need spraying, and they also don’t need elaborate pruning systems either. Just plant on in a suitable spot, and in two or three years you will be harvesting your first fruits.