The History of Persimmons and How to Grow Them

persimmon tree

If you are seeking a medium sized shade tree, around thirty feet tall with a thirty foot spread, possessing unusually ornamental and gustatory qualities, consider the persimmon (Diospyros kaki).  Although its fruit are Halloween orange and hard to miss, the persimmon tree generally flies under the radar when backyard fruit tree selection is under discussion.  This is a shame since persimmon fruit are highly rewarding to grow.  They are not known as God’s fruit (Dios = God, pyros = fruit) for nothing.

When it comes to the history of plant dispersion, seafarers are often involved and the Japanese persimmon’s arrival in the United States is a case in point.  In the course of one of his naval expeditions, Commodore Matthew Perry, who initiated US commercial relations with Japan in the 1850‘s, plucked persimmon fruit from trees growing along the Japanese coast.  The seeds from those fruit turned persimmon growing in America into a profitable venture.
Prior to Perry’s persimmon imports, the only persimmons available in the US were produced by a native tree (Persimmon virginiana), whose range stretches from Connecticut to Florida in the East through Texas and up to Iowa in the West.  Due to the unpredictable quality of its fruit and lack of hybridization, however, the American persimmon is not grown commercially but is sometimes used as a rootstock species upon which Japanese varieties are grafted.  Virtually all of the commercial persimmon orchards in the US are found in California, where 3,000 acres are planted.
What separates persimmons from other fruit are their division into two distinct types: astringent and non-astringent.  Astringent fruit, such as the ‘Hachiya’ variety, is very bitter, due to its tannin content.  Only when it ripens does it eventually become sweet, softening to a custard like consistency.  Captain John Smith, whose initial sampling of a softened native American persimmon occurred in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, described it “as delicious as an apricot.” Non-astringent varieties such as ‘Fuyu,’ on the other hand, are sweet the moment they begin to ripen since they lack tannins.  Whereas astringent varieties are only palatable once they turn soft, non-astringent varieties may be eaten either hard like apples or, further down the ripening road, when they soften.  Still another way to eat this fruit is derived from the etymology of persimmon, a reflection on how it was eaten by native Americans.  Persimmon is derived from an Algonquian word meaning “eaten dry” and, indeed, persimmons can be dried, sliced, and kept for many months as a sweet snack.
I was prompted to investigate persimmons upon receiving the following email:
I have a persimmon tree that is probably more than 50 years old. It bears a lot of persimmons each year but they seem to get riper sooner than before.  They usually ripen in September or October but this year the persimmons are already falling off. They’re green and about the size of a plum.  What can I do?  I counted close to 3 dozen on the ground.
Neil Minami, Gardena
Premature fruit drop of persimmons is not unusual.  In every fruit tree, there is a delicate balance between vegetative (shoot and leaf) growth and reproductive (flower and fruit) growth. Over-fertilization or over-watering shifts this balance in the direction of vegetative, at the expense of reproductive, growth. Fertilization of persimmon trees should be an after thought and you should not water more than twice a week during the growing season. You can minimize fruit drop by thinning your green fruit so that there is at least 6 inches between any two persimmon fruit growing on the same branch. Thin plums and apricots so they are 2-4 inches apart, while peaches and nectarines should be 3-5 inches apart and apples 6-8 inches apart after thinning.  Thinning should be conducted between a month and six weeks following full bloom of the tree in question.
The photo you sent shows an extremely vigorous tree with a dense growth habit.  I do not know what your fertilization program might be but, regardless of whether you fertilize heavily or not at all, the plethora of foliage on display may be factor in your fruit falling prematurely.  The tree’s energy is being channeled into leaf growth with not enough resources left over for successful development of more than a few fruit.  Remedy this problem by thinning the fruit that remains and removing extraneous vegetative growth.
To reduce your leafy load, you may wish to heed the advice of Alex Silber, whose family has been growing persimmon trees for decades at the Papaya Tree Nursery in Granada Hills.
“The persimmon has a tendency to bear fruit every other year,” Silber says, “and that can be controlled by proper fruit thinning just after annual fruit drop in June. A lighter, but more stable, crop is also achieved by proper pruning in December and again lightly in summer. The idea is to remove branches that are too close to each other for a more evenly dispersed branching structure, which will in turn reduce the fruit load. Fruit is borne on current season’s growth as well as on some one-year old wood. In addition to thinning cuts of stems and branches, heading back the tree to a manageable height is also recommended, especially in the top center of the tree.
Remove almost all twiggy growth,” Silber concludes, “favoring the thicker diameter wood which has more potential to produce a decent quality fruit.”
Tip of the Week:  Prune your persimmon tree when young to develop a strong central leader or main trunk with good branching structure.  You will be less burdened this way with excess fruit and premature fruit drop.  Once the branch structure is in place, pruning should not be necessary other than to remove dead wood or crossing stems or branches.  Keep in mind that, although deciduous, persimmon trees put on a brilliant fall foliar display as foliage turns mainly luminescent gold, but orange and red as well.  During the growing season, its large dark green and shimmering leaves are probably the most attractive of all fruit tree foliage.

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