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Great Fruit Trees for the Deep South: The Persimmon

2/19/2013 2:22:39 PM

Tags: deep south, fruit trees, persimmon, David Goodman

PERSIMMON PICKING JAPANESE PRINTNorthern gardeners often look down upon the South, shaking their heads over our sad lack of good cherry, apple, and pear trees. And while it’s true we can’t grow most apples or fine European dessert pears - let alone sweet cherries – we can grow some pretty cool species, including many that can’t stand northern winters. Similar to my “Survival Plant Profiles” at www.floridasurvivalgardening.com, I’ve decided, as a matter of public service, to share a few “Great Fruit Tree” profiles with you in coming posts here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS – starting with one of my favorite trees: the persimmon.

People either love or hate persimmons. Unlike apples, oranges or bananas… persimmons elicit strong emotions. They’re like the “Ford vs. Chevy” of fruits. There are probably a few reasons for this, one being the various varieties of persimmons people may have encountered. When you mention persimmon to one person, he may remember the small and horribly astringent fruit he ate from a tree in his grandmother’s yard. Another person might remember being tricked by a roommate into eating an unripe (and thus horrible) persimmon from the Asian market. Another more favored individual may remember the honeyed delight of a delicious variety flown in from Israel.

Persimmons are roughly divided into two camps: the astringent and the non-astringent. The non-astringent varieties, like “Fuyu,” won’t overwhelm you with bitterness and make your mouth feel cottony for an hour if you eat them before they’re fully ripe. It’s the opposite for the astringent varieties. Eat those too early and you’ll never forget the experience.

To further complicate things, we also have a native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) that many folks remember from when they were kids. This species, which is dioecious (meaning it has both male and female trees), bears small fruits that fall squarely into the “astringent” camp. The native varieties are also often used as a rootstock for Japanese varieties due to their excellent root systems. Folks growing up with these trees will sometimes divide persimmons into “native” and “Japanese” or “Asian” varieties, rather than “astringent” and “non-astringent.”

Whew. Confused yet? I used to be. Now I grow native and Japanese persimmons, of both astringent and non-astringent varieties. And I’ve come to see this tree as one of the very best for the South, for a few very good reasons.

But – before I get to those reasons – if you’ve been turned off by persimmons and the horror of cotton-mouth, you need to overcome your issues and try a nice ripe Fuyu variety. Go to your local higher-end supermarket in the fall and pick one up. Eat it. They taste like sunshine and honey. (If you don’t like it, your issues are much deeper than cotton-mouth. You need to talk to a certified psychological plant avoidance counselor. Do not pass go, do not pick up an apple on the way out!)

Now that you know persimmons can taste amazing, plant the type you want to eat. If you want a persimmon with exceptional flavor for making pies and preserves, try a Hachiya type. Those are a large-fruited astringent Japanese variety that need to get soft like pudding before you eat them. If you’re more interested in fresh fruit, go for something like the classic Fuyu non-astringent variety. If you’re more a native plant nut than a fruit-lover, plant American persimmons and the wildlife will thank you. (Or grow all three, like I do. Neener-neener!)persimmon tree 

Unlike peaches, apples and many other fruit trees that tend to burst into bloom during a warm spell, only to get their blooms frozen off by frost later on, persimmons are great at going dormant. They tend to drop their leaves in mid-fall, then stay comfortably nude and frost-proof until well into spring. While I’m out covering peach trees and running the sprinklers on my blueberries to save their blooms, the persimmons sleep uncomplainingly until they’re good and ready to wake up. 

Another benefit to persimmons is their ability to live with some neglect. I’ve had few bug or disease issues even though I grow organically. The same cannot be said for the plums, apples and other fruits I’ve tried … and sometimes killed.

Additionally, a well-shaped persimmon tree is a lovely sight. There’s a reason this tree inspired so many Japanese artists over the centuries. They look stunning bare of leaves and be-decked with ripening fruit in the late fall – and during the growing season, the broad green leaves and graceful form of a Japanese persimmon makes it look almost like a misplaced tropical.

Persimmon wood is also beautiful. Its strength makes it excellent for tool handles. Since it’s a relative of the prized ebony, it also has an enviable density that makes it very good for craftwork. Think about that when you prune.

As a final note: at the southernmost part of their range, native persimmon trees are often small and shrubby unlike the larger specimens they grow into further north. Japanese persimmon trees are also not particularly large, making both varieties good for small yards and urban food forests.

If you’re considering a tree – and don’t have deep issues with the fruit – consider giving persimmons a go. I’m very glad I did. 

Photo by Fotolia/Sarajyu 

The title of the painting is "Picking Persimmons" by Toyonobu Ishikawa, 1711-1785.



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