Your Backyard Fruit Bowl – Persimmons
May is the peak season for fresh persimmons in New Zealand, with supermarket shelves and market stalls now laden with this increasingly-popular fruit, which looks somewhat like a squat miniature pumpkin-tomato hybrid. As a home garden specimen tree, the persimmon offers not only a plentiful source of fruit heading into the winter months but also a brilliant display of colour as its foliage turns in the autumn.
I was first introduced to the persimmon (Diospyros kaki) some twenty years ago while at university. One wet autumn weekend, I headed to the Arts Centre market in Christchurch with a friend I’d known from high school and we happened upon a pile of orange orbs on a produce stall. I’d certainly seen persimmons in photographs and for sale occasionally here and there, but never actually tried one. My friend was already a big fan (and if my memory serves me right, the stallholder had cut samples for us to try) and under her tutelage, I duly selected and purchased four firms, deep orange fruit to be enjoyed later, simply cut into slices and consumed skin and all, just like a crisp apple. All these years later, I still prefer to eat my persimmons the exact same way.
There are many common names for the persimmon derived from the Greek roots dios and pyron, including “God’s pear” and “Job’s fire” and you may also have heard them referred to as Sharon fruit, but the latter is actually a trading name for an Israeli-bred cultivar, named after the coastal Sharon plain in Israel. The word persimmon is actually a derivative of a Powhatan term, putchamin (alternative spellings pasiminan, pessamin) meaning “a dry fruit” or “choke fruit”. Powhatan is an extinct Algonquian language originating from a coastal region of the eastern United States, spanning parts of Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina.
Cultivation of persimmons began in China over 2,000 years ago, spreading to Japan in the 7th century and Korea in the 14th century. They were introduced to southern Europe and California in the 1800s, Brazil in the 1890s and I was most interested to read on the New Zealand Horticulture Export Authority webpage that they have been grown in New Zealand since the 1870s.
Persimmons: a short family history
Persimmons belong to the Ebenaceae, along with some other well-known members of the genus Diospyros - several species of ebony, from which the famed dark-wood timber is harvested. The Asian or Oriental persimmon, D. kaki, is the most common commercial persimmon species worldwide and is native to China, Northeast India and the northern parts of mainland Southeast Asia. There are both astringent and non-astringent cultivars within the Asian persimmons – I’ll go into more detail about astringency later. Other notable Diospyros species with edible fruit include
D. lotus, the date-plum, native to southwest Asia and south-eastern Europe, the flavour of which is self-explanatory; and two North American species: D. virginiana, the American persimmon, an astringent variety native to the eastern USA, and D. texana, small-fruited Texas or Mexican persimmon (which bears fruit which are black in colour), native to the southern states and Mexico. The former two species are commonly utilised as rootstocks for grafted D. kaki cultivars.
The majority of persimmon cultivars are dioecious, with individual trees bearing male or female flowers, though some are monoecious varieties (with male and female flowers on the same tree). Some varieties will bear female flowers only, which will go on to produce seedless fruit that grows to maturity without pollination – a process known as parthenocarpy. The presence of a polliniser nearby such trees can help increase fruit set and fruit size, but may result in fruit with seeds, seen by some as an undesirable quality, but useful for propagation purposes.
All persimmons contain high levels of soluble tannins in their flesh, with the presence of these astringent-tasting compounds a defence mechanism to prevent animals from consuming the under-ripe fruit. Don’t confuse astringency with sourness or bitterness; astringency is actually a drying, mouth-puckering sensation – think of how your mouth feels when you eat a banana that’s a little on the green side. You will hear persimmons referred to as either being an astringent or non-astringent cultivar – considering they all start out with a degree of astringency, this really refers to the stage at which they can be eaten. The non-astringent varieties contain lower levels of tannins initially, and these drops away faster during the ripening process, allowing them to be eaten while still firm, as well as in the softer-flesh stage. Astringent varieties containing higher levels of tannins cannot be eaten until the flesh is completely soft and jelly-like, as it takes a much longer ripening period for the tannins to drop to a level at which the fruit becomes palatable. Many people believe the flavour of soft-ripe astringent persimmons to be superior to that of their non-astringent cousins, but each to their own. Accelerated ripening can be carried out at home using the time-honoured method of placing the fruit in a paper bag along with an ethylene-producing fruit such as an apple, pear or banana for a few days.
There are also some interesting relationships between the pollination status (constant – not requiring pollination vs. variant – requiring pollination) and astringency of individual varieties, which is well worth reading up on if you intend to become a persimmon-growing aficionado.
Here’s a cautionary tale – consumption of under-ripe persimmons can lead to the formation of phytobezoars in the intestinal tract. Bezoars are trapped masses in the gastrointestinal system, phytobezoars being composed specifically of plant material. These can occur not only in the stomachs of humans but also in herbivorous animals. A soluble tannin found in persimmons, shibuol, undergoes polymerisation in the acidic conditions of the stomach, forming a thick, sticky cellulose-protein compound and creating a diospyrobezoar. These persimmon-phytobezoars can occur in epidemic proportions in the human population in persimmon-growing regions and are the most common type of phytobezoar encountered.
Suitable climates and growing conditions
New Zealand’s commercial persimmon industry currently consists of 136 ha spread throughout the growing regions of Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Gisborne and the Bay of Plenty. 2,000 tonnes of fruit were grown in 2020, with about three-quarters of this volume exported, key markets being Australia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam. Although commercial production is centred in the North Island, persimmon trees can be grown throughout much of the country, fruiting well in the top of the south. I have six trees planted on the West Coast of the South Island as part of a New Zealand Tree Crops Association trial, and they are growing well after two years in the ground, though yet to produce fruit or flowers. As a winter-dormant deciduous species, persimmons (especially the hardier astringent types) will tolerate temperatures in the range of -10 to -16°C during this phase, but require a long period of warm weather over the summer months to ensure the fruit fully ripens. Winter chilling requirements for fruit production are fairly low, at 100-500 hours, remarkably little compared with say apples, which require in the region of 400-1800 chilling hours.
Site selection and planting
Due to the recent increase in the popularity of persimmons as a home garden fruit, and their long propagation phase (it can take three years for a persimmon seedling to reach a suitable size for grafting), demand for grafted trees is currently high, so it would pay to place your nursery order well in advance.
Persimmons can be grown in most soils, including the heavier types, but will not tolerate waterlogging as they are susceptible to root rots such as Phytophthora. The brittle-branched persimmon’s biggest enemy is wind, so choose a sheltered site, and you may want to consider a sturdy stake and some windbreak cloth in your tree’s formative years. Winter or spring are the best times to plant, the trees have a large taproots which should not be disturbed, so make sure your planting hole is deep enough to accommodate this. The persimmon’s fertiliser requirements are not particularly high, and a light application of compost in spring should suffice in most situations – also be wary that excessive amounts of high-nitrogen fertiliser can lead to fruit drop. As with all young trees, keep the area around the trunk free from weeds (an organic mulch such as leaf mould or chipped garden waste can help here) and irrigate when necessary in the spring and summer during flowering (November-December), fruit set and ripening. In the New Zealand climate, persimmons can easily reach around six metres in height but can be pruned to a more manageable size for smaller gardens.
Culture and care
Choose several leaders and develop a strong framework of branches early on when the tree is still young - fruit is borne on the current season’s growth. Persimmon branches tend to be rather brittle and will break easily if not supported or over-cropped. Thinning excess fruit is therefore very important, however painful this process might be! You can expect the first fruits any time from three years of age, and full production at ten years. The tree in the photograph is ten years old and produced 50 kg of fruit this season. It is not uncommon for mature trees to produce upwards of 100 kg. You should always harvest persimmons like citrus, clipping the fruit off using secateurs, leaving the green calyx and a short piece of stem attached. Light pruning in the dormant winter phase helps ensure the production of new fruiting wood – concentrate on thinning out excess shoots to retain a good tree shape and structure, and cut back any branches that become long and straggly so they don’t break under the strain of fruit in the following season. If over-cropping is likely to be an issue, remove low-vigour stems from the centre of the tree to reduce the burden. Keeping shoots thinned out will also help prevent the fruit marking, caused by branch-rub. You might like to consider an espalier system along wire support and/or wall for your persimmon tree – not only will this structure offer support and provide a foundation for an easy-to-prune framework, but it also makes netting for bird protection during the ripening period much easier!
Pests, diseases and what to do about them
Persimmon trees are fairly hardy. As previously mentioned, they are susceptible to soil-borne root rots, but avoiding heavy or waterlogged soil types at planting will go a long way in helping to prevent these from becoming an issue. A few generalist insect predators such as thrips, mites and mealybugs may attack the tree, and if these become a problem, an application of neem oil spray may be beneficial. By far the biggest issue you will have is with birds attacking the ripening fruit. Cover the tree with bird netting when the fruit starts to turn colour – as persimmons generally don’t ripen all at once, you can harvest your fill and then remove the net if you wish to leave a share for the birds in winter. I can guarantee your persimmon tree will be a stunning late-season garden feature, with the golden fruit hanging on long after the vibrant autumn blaze of green-yellow-red leaves is over.
Varieties: My top picks
The most commonly available variety is Fuyu, a non-astringent seedless variety, the one you will be familiar with from supermarket shelves. It crops from May to July. The fruit can be eaten when firm or ripened until soft. There are other slightly earlier cultivars available, such as Matsumoto Wase Fuyu, which is also non-astringent and ripens approximately 10 days earlier than the standard Fuyu. Those in cooler areas may like to consider the astringent cultivars Hachiya and Hiratanenashi (also known as Tanenashi), which are tolerant of colder environmental conditions and produce more elongated, heart-shaped fruit than the non-astringent cultivars. Just don’t forget to let these fruit ripen until completely soft before consuming them!
What to do with your crop
Nutritionally, persimmons contain useful amounts of fibre, vitamins C and A, and manganese. Interestingly, they are best kept at room temperature; the flesh actually softens faster under refrigeration. To peel or not to peel? I personally don’t mind the taste and texture of persimmon skin but do find a little residual astringency lurks beneath it. Peeling will all but eliminate this.
If you come by a large number of persimmons and possess or can borrow a dehydrator, they are fantastically dried and will keep well for a year or two in a sealed container (a glass jar is good as you can keep an eye on any deterioration over time). Peel the fruit (or don’t bother, if you’re like me and like a bit of chew) and slice 5 mm thick. I leave the core in, but if you have an apple peeler-corer-slicer, use this to make fast work of firm fruit. Take a slice off the calyx end before impaling each fruit on the tines. I give the slices a quick dip in a lime juice bath, drain them, then place them on the dehydrator trays and dehydrate on a medium setting (55-60°C) for 8-10 hours, until leathery but still pliable. The lime juice step is not essential as the fruit does not discolour without it, but it does accent the flavour of the fruit. As I’m not a fan of soft-ripe persimmons, but still have a few that “get away” with me, I puree the ripe fruit with some stewed apple (50:50 works well) and lime juice to taste. Spread on solid dehydrator trays and dried at the same temperature for about 10 hours, this yields a tasty fruit leather.
Why not make the most of the harvest season with an autumn fruit salad? I like to combine peeled and sliced feijoas with persimmon and Granny Smith apple slices, passionfruit pulp and a squeeze of lime juice. Kiwifruit would also fit in well here.
I found a few interesting references to the persimmon in historical contexts and folklore as I prepared material for this article. Persimmon seeds are rather hard and durable and were used as buttons, especially in the southern states, during the American Civil War. A passable substitute for coffee was also made during this time from persimmon seeds – given this versatility, maybe non-parthenocarpic varieties will be back in fashion before we know it! The most curious practice was the use of persimmon seeds to predict the forthcoming winter’s weather. Sliced in half longitudinally, a persimmon seed reveals a dark interior with a white, cutlery-shaped centre. The type of cutlery depicted is important! This is our meteorological predictor. A fork-shaped centre predicts a mild winter with light conditions, a spoon means heavy snowfalls are on the way, and a knife suggests a winter predominated by bitterly cold, icy, (yes…cutting) winds. Take from this what you may – I think I’ll be sticking to the MetService for now.
Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association who endeavours to grow and preserve as much of her own fresh produce as possible. When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.
The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organisation promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage and other productive crops. Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/
Image: 10-year-old espaliered Fuyu persimmon at harvest, Nelson region. Credit: A & B Phillips.