It’s raining persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) here and I know the trees are mocking me. I put so much effort into my apple trees, with careful pruning and repeated spraying of various organic concoctions, and what do those trees offer in return. Little. Sometimes nothing. This is admittedly a bad site for growing apples in terms of late frosts, damp air, and proximity to woods that harbor apple pests.
The persimmons, though, I do practically nothing for them. Yet the fruit comes raining down, more than we can eat.
Still, to quote W. F. Fletcher, writing in a USDA Farmers’ Bulletin back in 1915, “The [American] persimmon tree has received more criticism, both adverse and favorable, than almost any known species.” If your mouth has ever been puckered by an unripe American persimmon, you know much of the reason for this adverse criticism. The bad press goes back as far as the early part of the 17th century, when Captain John Smith, of Jamestown fame, wrote: “If [a persimmon] is not ripe it will draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment.” In modern parlance, I liken eating an unripe persimmon to having the business end of a vacuum cleaner in your mouth - and the sensation lingers even after you spit out the fruit.
Ah, but eating a thoroughly ripened persimmon is as pleasurable a gustatory experience as eating an unripe one is horrible. Captain Smith went on to say of the persimmon that “when it is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot.” In contrast to the larger, firmer Oriental persimmon found in food markets, fruit of the American persimmon has the look and size of a cherry tomato, with a similar range of color, from yellow to orange to deep red. When ready to eat, an American persimmon is very soft, too soft for a market fruit, but fine for backyards, where fruits need travel no further than arm’s length. At that point, the flesh has a richness and texture something like a dried apricot that has been soaked in water, then dipped in honey and given a dash of spice.
Differences between the American and Oriental persimmon (D. kaki) go beyond the fruit. Cold tolerance for example. Oriental persimmons cannot tolerate winter temperatures much below zero degrees Fahrenheit (Zone 7), yet American persimmons, native from Connecticut down to Florida and west to Kansas, bear fruit even after winters when the mercury plummets below minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit (Zone 4).
Compared with the Oriental persimmon, improved by centuries of breeding and selection, the American persimmon is a pomological upstart. There are a couple of dozen named varieties of American persimmon, with the first one, Early Golden, discovered in 1880 on a farm in Alton, Illinois. Early Golden, early-ripening, flavorful, and small seeded, began a lineage of high-quality varieties that includes Garretson, Killen, and John Rick. Other varieties, many unrelated to Early Golden, were also selected and named by the early part of this century. That U. S. Department of Agriculture bulletin of 1915 listed 12 varieties besides Early Golden.
Many wild persimmons never develop good flavor, so the first key to enjoying persimmons is to plant a variety known to bear tasty fruits. Furthermore, near the northern limit of growing persimmons, such as on my zone 5 farmden, you need a variety that not only can survive winter cold, but also can ripen its fruit in the short growing season. Contrary to myth, frost is not necessary to, nor will it, ripen a persimmon. What is needed is time. Although fruits continue to ripen following light frosts, development is arrested when the mercury plummets to the mid-twenties. Nearly ripe fruits will ripen indoors. I grow a few varieties and my two favorites for flavor are Mohler, which begins ripening towards the end of August (way before any hint of frost here), and Szukis, which begins ripening a month later.
There is one more wrinkle in selecting a persimmon variety - pollination. Wild trees and many cultivated varieties, are either male or female. In this case, to get fruit you have to rely on nearby wild trees, plant a male pollinator, or graft a male branch onto a female tree.
Fortunately, not all females need males to set fruit. Some female varieties accommodate us gardeners by bearing occasional male branches - a characteristic prevalent in Early Golden and its offspring. And some female do not need any pollination in order to set fruit, which is then seedless. That’s something I like about my Szukis and Mohler trees; no need for a male pollinator. Other varieties that can bear fruit in isolation are Meader, Early Golden, Florence, and Garretson.
As I wrote in the beginning, persimmon is a low maintenance plant. I’ve never had to consider spraying anything on my persimmon trees, nor do I prune them regularly. Young trees benefit from occasional pruning to build up a good form. But once fruit bearing begins, usually 3 to 4 years after planting, persimmons become somewhat self-pruning as they naturally drop some of the branches that have borne fruit - what more could you ask for from a fruit tree?
The tree tolerates a wide range of soils but allegedly doesn’t like waterlogged soils. Two of my trees in wet locations - with water from Hurricane Irene rising 4 feet up their trunk! - are doing fine, though. Especially at the northern limits of persimmon growing, such as here on my farmden, the trees bear best with abundant sunlight and warmth. As a tree matures, sprouts originating from the roots may appear five feet or more away from the parent plant. This suckering habit caused farmers at the turn of the century to curse the plant as it spread into their fields, but is not a problem for trees in mown lawn. And lawn is a good place for a persimmon tree, where ripe fruit, which often drop, can plummet to the ground intact.
One final caution: persimmon eventually grows to be a large tree, fifty feet or more in height; the size is commensurately less in colder regions. Pruning can can limit tree size. This spring I lopped the tops of two of my trees back to weaker side branches. The trees weren’t growing too large for the site, but over a certain height, falling fruit splatters rather than landing intact.
Even though persimmon grows so large, it is never imposing. Drooping leaves and branches - the branches made more so by their weight of fruit - give the tree a relaxed, languid appearance. A bluish cast to the leaves enhances the effect. Even the bark is of interest, with its checkered pattern making the trunk seem as if wrapped in alligator hide (humorous, not frightening).
Persimmon trees maintain their attractiveness through much of the year. The leaves stay prim all season, even as those on other plants start to show the effects of wind, battering rain, and insect forays. Come fall, the tree’s languid appearance is livened with brightly colored fruits ripening amongst the dark leaves. Autumn color can be spectacular, with leaves anywhere on the spectrum from clear yellow to crimson, depending on the variety and the progress of the season.
Even after the leaves have dropped to the ground, fruits commonly hang onto the limbs, festooning the leafless trees like Christmas ornaments. Well into autumn, we pick ripe fruits from the ground or let them hang on the branches to be plucked off at out pleasure.
I devote a whole chapter to this wonderful fruit in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.