By: Charlie Nardozzi
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.