Story and Photography by A.J. Heinsz-Bailey
It’s the end of October, not much is happening in the garden … then you see them. Little orange pumpkin-like fruit hanging on a spectacular small tree dressed in vibrant red and orange leaves. Barely noticed in summer, they’re now the highlight of your yard. The genus name of persimmons, Diospyros, translates to “fruit of the gods.” Such an endorsement leads the curious to plant at least one tree to see and taste these gorgeous orange orbs. Consider it a self-decorating Christmas tree with edible ornaments.
The two species recommended for planting in Louisiana are Oriental persimmons (D. kaki), which are small trees with large fruit, and native persimmon (D. virginiana), which is a large tree with small tasty fruit. Oriental persimmons are most suited for the home fruit orchard. Local nurseries offer container-grown plants for spring and fall planting. ‘Fuyu’ is a very popular, heavy-producing, non-astringent type that is readily available. ‘Fuyu’ tends to have a shape that looks like a slightly flattened tomato and can be eaten when in the firm ripe stage. It has all of the best characteristics.
Oriental persimmons may produce male, female, and/or perfect flowers on the same tree and do not require cross-pollination to set fruit. This process is called parthenocarpy. Parthenocarpic fruit forms no seed, which is a desirable trait for easy consumption. Native and Oriental persimmons will not cross-pollinate. Native persimmons are usually dioecious, which means they produce either male or female flowers. Native persimmons are not self-pollinating. Both male and female trees are required to produce fruit.
When planting a persimmon tree, choose a site that receives at least 10 hours of sunlight daily. Adaptable to most soil types, persimmon trees do require good drainage. Poor drainage can result in root rot, fruit drop, and even sometimes death of the tree. Trees can be planted in early spring or fall and will begin producing fruit after three or four years.
Once established, persimmon trees are fairly drought tolerant. Regular watering will reward the gardener with generous fruit production. Apply a complete organic fertilizer or 8-8-8 annually. Trees should put out new growth of approximately 1 foot each year. Approximately 1 pound of fertilizer per year age of the tree is sufficient. Spread the fertilizer around the dripline in early spring. Be careful to not apply too much nitrogen, as that could cause the fruit to drop prematurely.
Persimmon trees have few insect or disease problems. Raccoons, birds, and opossums sometimes help themselves to ripe fruit. Avoid losing fruits by harvesting when fruit are fully colored but still hard and allow ripening indoors. Dormant oil spray can be applied annually if scale insects are a problem. Fall webworms can be removed by hand if necessary. Trees should be inspected for crown gall and anthracnose. Various leaf spots may develop, but generally do not reach levels that require treatment.
You will want to train an Oriental persimmon tree into a modified central leader. Prune in late winter, removing suckers and opening the tree to have six- to eight-scaffold branches evenly distributed around the tree. This will keep the tree smaller and more compact without developing a lot of water sprouts. Mature trees require little pruning other than removing dead, crossing, or diseased branches as needed. Thin the fruit to prevent limb breakage. American persimmon trees reach 40-50 feet and require no pruning.
Fruit begins ripening near the end of October through December. Persimmon fruits are categorized as astringent or non-astringent. Oriental persimmons can be astringent or non-astringent, depending on the variety. American persimmons are all astringent. The astringency is due to tannins that decrease as the fruits soften. Astringent fruits make your mouth pucker when eaten while still hard, but have a rich, sweet, honey flavor when allowed to ripen to a pudding-like texture. Non-astringent fruits can be eaten when hard or soft. The hard fruits have a crisp texture. Harvest non-astringent varieties when fully colored and still hard. Astringent Oriental varieties should be harvested when the fruit is translucent and easily separates from the branch. Cut the fruit from the tree including the leaf-like collar and a small bit of stem. The fruit will continue to ripen after it is picked. Put them in boxes and leave them on the kitchen counter until they are soft. The fruit is striking and is often still hanging on the branches after the leaves have fallen to the ground. They look like bright little pumpkins on the branches.
Too soft for commercial shipping, persimmons are best eaten right off of the tree. High in vitamins C and B6, calcium, and fiber, persimmons can be eaten fresh, dried, or cooked into pies, cookies, and cakes. Native Americans used them in cornbread and pudding. Fully ripe persimmons can be frozen whole or pureed for later use.
Persimmon trees are easy to grow, pest- and disease-free, with striking fall color, compact size, and ornamental fruit that adds to its landscape value. Even the wood is prized by woodworkers for making golf clubs. This holiday season try falling for persimmons.