If your memories of biting into a home-grown persimmon are of mouth-puckering, eye-scrunching astringency, then think again, as there are lots of sweet, non-astringent varieties you can grow. These persimmons are perfect for eating sliced, whole like a pear, peeled and diced, dried, or even added to a smoothie as a thickener. And they can be grown through a wide variety of climate zones.
Start off with a listen to the audio as I talk with Sabina Fielding-Smith about growing persimmon, how to tell the different varieties apart, when they’re ripe and what protection or pruning they might need, and then you can read on for more notes.
The most commonly grown fruiting persimmon, botanically Diospyros kaki, is a small, deciduous tree from China, although there are several other species native to Asia, such as Diospyros lotus and also one to eastern USA (Diospyros virginiana) which provides both astringent fruit and a handsome, almost black timber.
The canopy shape of Diospyos kaki ranges from round-headed to a more gnarled, picturesque silhouette on older trees, especially where the branches have been allowed to elongate and descend. Persimmons are also very long-lived, with some specimens in China documented as over 300 years old.
Leaves are large, dark green, stiff and glossy, turning a brilliant, vibrant orange in autumn/fall, but the tree is at its most spectacular after the leaves have fallen and the large orangey-red globular fruit are left hanging on bare branches, looking just like Christmas baubles.
Unlike many deciduous fruit trees, persimmon has a low chill requirement for bud break and flowering, which occurs in mid to late spring, after most other deciduous fruit trees and avoiding problems with late frosts. Flowers on Asian persimmon, Diospyros kaki, are a creamy-yellow colour, with both male and female flowers on the same tree but most Asian cultivars like ‘Fuyu’ have only female flowers. Despite the female-only flowers, the trees are still able to set fruit parthenocarpically. However some growers recommend planting 2-3 trees together to improve fruit bearing by pollination, including planting a good pollinating variety like ‘Gailey’ or ‘Dai Dai Maru’ alongside. Persimmon is bee pollinated.
Persimmon requires some summer heat for the fruit to lose its astringent edge, even for the sweet varieties and the fruit is ready for harvesting in mid-late autumn/fall. Fruit astringency is caused by tannins which dissipate as the fruit ripens.
Sweet varieties can be grown in milder coastal districts and the astringent types are better for colder zones. Sweet persimmon is grown commercially throughout China, Japan, Korea, in Europe in Italy and Spain, and in the USA in California and Florida. In Australia they’re grown commercially in southern Queensland, northern NSW, northern Victoria, north-eastern South Australia and south-west Western Australia, in New Zealand around Gisborne and Auckland and in South Africa in the Western Cape.
Persimmon is grown by grafting a known cultivar, like ‘Fuyu’, onto an appropriate rootstock during winter. Rootstocks can be one of three Diospyros species – Diospyros kaki, (preferred) Diospyros virginiana (popular in colder areas of USA) or Diospyros lotus. Whip and tongue grafting is preferred but some growers also use bud grafting. As only about 60% of grafts take, persimmon trees will often be a bit more expensive than other fruit trees of similar size. You can grow persimmon from seed but it will be very variable and of unknown fruiting quality.
Non-astringent ‘sweet’ varieties include ‘Fuyu’, ‘Jiro’, ‘Izu’, ‘Suruga’ and the dwarf variety ‘Ichikikijiro’. A common astringent variety is ‘Hachiya’ (sometimes called ‘Fuji’) and you will also find ‘Nightingale’ and ’20th Century’.
And what do they taste like? The fruit is often likened to a cross between a date and a plum. Whatever that tastes like! For many, the astringent varieties are an ‘acquired taste’, although this may be more to do their jelly-like texture.
How can you tell when the fruit is ripe and ready to eat? Harvest sweet (non-astringent) varieties only when they’ve developed a rich orange colour and eat them firm, even crisp. With astringent varieties, you can cut the fruit from the tree (don’t pull it) when it’s coloured-up and starting to soften. To eat it, you need to wait until the fruit is very soft, with a jelly-like consistency and the calyx (the greenish bit at the top of the fruit) pulls away easily. The skin will be just starting to split. You can hurry ripening along by storing them with fruit that gives off ethylene, like ripening bananas. Once the fruit is soft, it’s easiest to cut them open and eat the flesh with a spoon. Don’t believe those who say you have to wait until the fruit goes rotten!
You can also eat them dried, which changes them from a crisp consistency to a soft, date-like, chewy texture. Eaten this way, they are deliciously sweet and taste more like candy than dried fruit. The fruits are picked when mature but firm, peeled and hung by their stems for 1-2 months in the sun. Hand kneading is required every 4–5 days to give uniform texture and good flavour. After this first drying period, they are ‘sweated’ for 10 days in heaps under mats until sugar crystals form on the surface, then they are hung up again to air dry.
Persimmon can be baked into cakes and muffins, made into jams, frozen, added to yoghurt and the sweet varieties also tossed through a salad.
The best time to plant persimmon is during the cooler months, which will give them as much time as possible to get established before next summer’s heat. The branches are brittle and break easily – especially when weighed down by the fruit – so choose an open, sunny spot that’s sheltered from strong winds.
Preferred climate for Asian persimmon is temperatures above -5 ºC (above 20 ºF, USDA zones 7-10). Although warm summer days around 20-25 ºC (70-80 ºF) are needed for fruit development, lots of hot and sunny days as the fruit ripens in mid-late autumn can burn the fruit. Persimmon grows well in temperate, mediterranean and even subtropical climates.
Persimmon can be successfully grown on a wide range of soils from light sandy loams to heavy alluvial clays. Preferred soils are light, well-drained sandy loams or loams with a pH6-6.5 and they don’t have to be particularly fertile and persimmon can also be grown on low phosphorus soils. As with most fruit trees, the soil needs to drain well. You can grow a self-fertile persimmon in a large pot.
When planting out dormant, bare-rooted stock in winter, take care with the fragile tap root you’ll find if your cultivar is grafted on to Diospyros kaki rootstock. New trees are often slow to establish. Perismmon has a short growing season through the summer months.
If you keep your persimmon pruned to 3m (10ft) high, then you’ll be able to net it to save the fruit from bird and fruit bat damage. Persimmon also grows very well as an espalier in a shape known as a trellised palmette, where the tree is pruned to allow 3 main leaders. Trellising also helps prevent branch breakage. Flowers buds form on the ends of current season’s growth.
Persimmon is rarely affected by pests (other than fruit-loving birds) because the fruit ripen too late for fruit fly attack, but do still pick up fallen fruit just in case. Watch out for mealy bug sheltering under the calyx.