In the Garden: Branch out with Persimmons
Persimmons are one of those great all-American natives.
The American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is found in the Southeast up to Connecticut and out west to Kansas. It is hardy in zones 4–9, will reach 35 to 65 feet in height, is considered a slow grower and can live into its 80s. They are typically seen in old farm fields and in fence rows.
Once the tree has lost all its leaves in the fall, it reveals the orange 1½-inch fruit holding tightly to its branches. It is quite the sight against the clear blue sky of an autumn day. In fact, deer hunters actually seek the old persimmons out because as they ripen they serve as a congregation point for the local deer population.
The persimmons we find in the produce section of the grocery store are Oriental persimmons, or Diospyros kaki. Oriental persimmons are large and have much firmer flesh, and therefore a longer shelf life, so these are the only ones available to grocery consumers. The persimmons we have been eating here at the farm are smaller, softer, sweet and delicious but they pretty much have zero shelf life.
We pick every other day, either from the ground — one way to ensure your persimmon is ripe — or by gently shaking the tree to encourage the ripe fruit to fall from out-of-reach branches. Last year I even rigged up a catch net, like a safety net for an aerial acrobat, that caught them on their way down.
Persimmons are the kind of fruit that you eat on the fly. I usually eat my daily allowance as I harvest; the rest go in a bowl in the refrigerator. My husband has taken to smearing a whole fruit on toast: instant jelly; I thought it was a great idea. Pair it with peanut butter and you have a meal.
I also dry little pieces which is a nod to its name which is the bastardization of an Algonquian word that means “a dry fruit.” Preserving this delicate fruit for winter would provide your necessary vitamin C fix before the days of shipping in oranges and grapefruit from Florida. Most people who collect persimmons from native trees wait until the first hard frost, when the fruit drops to the ground. Certainly, this is a necessity because trees in their native habitat can reach upwards of 65 feet. But there is also the issue of ripeness. Many feel that this is the only way to ensure that the persimmons you are harvesting are truly ripe. The cultivated varieties of the American persimmon will ripen before a hard frost, so you needn’t wait so long with selections like Yates, ‘Evelyn and the Oriental-American cross Nikita’s Gift.
Eating a persimmon that is not quite ripe is a most startling experience. The bitter flavor, which seems to draw every moisture molecule from your mouth, elicits the worst puckered-lip face ever associated with taste. I actually know people who are afraid to eat persimmons because of an experience with underripe fruit. I manage to eat a not-quite-ripe persimmon once every year, but only once. This astringent quality comes from a high tannin content that decreases as the fruit ripens. The irony here is that the astringent tannin is one of the things that make this fruit so healthy. Tannin = antioxidant; persimmons also have vitamin C, calcium, iron, potassium (move over, banana) and beta-carotene, among other nutrients.
Here’s what to look for when harvesting persimmons: Usually if they have fallen from the tree they are ready to eat. But be quick—there are plenty of animals waiting for them to drop, too. Unripe persimmons hold securely to the branch. If they have not fallen or do not come loose from the tree easily they are not yet ready to eat.
Even more of an indication of ripeness has to do with the softness of the flesh and the color of the skin. Ripe persimmons take on a rosy-orange color and the flesh feels like it is nearly too ripe (compared to other fruits). If they are slightly underripe they will ripen off the tree; if they are very underripe, they will not. Pick them at their peak and you will be quite surprised that nature just served you a ball of jam without the jar!
Yes, the native persimmon is cosmetically challenged but at its most unattractive it is at its peak.
For Kentuckiana growers, the American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is the logical choice and there are number of good cultivated varieties that are ideal for the home orchard environment. The cultivated varieties of American persimmons typically only reach about 30 to 50 feet and they generally ripen sooner than a “ripening frost.” Yates, for example, started producing ripe fruit last year in late September and we typically harvest for about one month on our mature trees. Meander and John Rick are also good selections and I see great promise in the Ukrainian persimmon, which is a hybrid cross between the Oriental and American persimmon.
We planted Nikita’s Gift about 10 years ago and this year’s harvest is going to be a significant crop of three-inch fruit. The fruit is like the big, firm, perfect persimmon that I saw for the first time in the produce section all those years ago. It has the hardiness of its American lineage and the small stature and large, firm fruit of its Asian roots. This persimmon is hardy to –10°, which means we can successfully grow it here; and after 10 years that is what we have done. In an urban garden this may just be the tree to bring the persimmon back to the home orchard.
Jeneen Wiche grows chicken, sheep, fruit trees and produce on Swallowrail Farm in Shelby County.
- Nolin River Nut Tree Nursery in Upton, Kentucky, has an excellent selection of persimmon cultivars. See NolinNursery.com.
- Cross-pollination between a male and female tree is necessary for most species (but not all). Yates and Nikita’s Gift do not need a pollinator and are largely seedless.
- Persimmons can colonize by their roots so they make excellent trees for erosion control.