Persimmons, Diospyros virginiana, are a native fruit that are greatly underutilized by modern Americans. The plants make a nice small to medium sized tree with great fall color for the landscape and they provide delicious fruit. The fruit look almost like small pumpkins, tree tomatoes, or very large acorns with a persistent calyx top and bright orange fruit. They are North America’s largest berry at about two inches across. Native Americans were very familiar with the fruit and the traditions for eating and cooking with the fruit continue in the Midwest, where there are persimmon festivals and pudding contests.
The fruit have a thin, waxy skin, and thick, jelly-like pulp that is very sweet with a unique flavor when ripe. The fruit matures in late fall and may stay on the tree into winter. To harvest the ripe fruit on a native persimmon, spread a blanket under the tree and shake the branches. Ripe fruit will fall off the tree, and unripe ones will stay. The fruit are best eaten fresh, but may be cooked or dried. You can eat firm, non-astringent fruit (from the Japanese persimmon) like an apple, but eat soft-ripe fruit by cutting the fruit in two and scooping the pulp out with a spoon. The native fruit are not commonly found in stores because they are very soft when ripe, and too astringent to eat when not ripe. The story goes that the fruit are not ripe until after frost, which can be difficult here in Central Florida. There are techniques to ripen the fruit that avoid that frost requirement (actually a myth). Exposing the fruit to ethylene, the common fruit ripening gas, will allow the fruit to soften and lose astringency. Sealing the fruit in a container with a little bit of alcohol, like gin or whisky, or with an apple, will have the same effect. I have been told that astringent Japanese persimmons were traditionally ripened in empty sake barrels. Treatment with alcohol may impart an interesting flavor as well.
Consumers may be more familiar with the foreign relative, the Japanese persimmon, Diospyros kaki. This fruit is available in grocery stores because it can be shipped and eaten when still firm. There are also non-astringent cultivars available and the fruit is much larger (2-4 inch diameter). This persimmon also makes a very nice ornamental tree with the larger bright orange fruit retained on the branches after the leaves have fallen. Many of these cultivars can set seedless fruit without pollination, although they produce more and larger fruit if pollinated.
There are many cultivars available, just be aware of whether the fruit will be astringent or not. Both male and female trees are required for pollination and fruit. ‘Tanenashi’ is the leading southeastern US cultivar that does not need pollination and fruit are astringent until soft, however, the flavor is lacking. “Japanese Persimmon” provides a listing and description of many cultivars. ‘Fuyu’, ‘Izu’, and ‘Matsumoto’ were the most common commercial cultivars in Florida in 1997, bearing up to 10,000 pounds/acre in the 7-8th year. ‘Triumph’ will yield well as far south as Homestead, FL.
Growing and harvesting
The trees require full sun, but can tolerate partial shade. The plants prefer moist, well-drained soils, but are very drought- and urban-tolerant and adaptable. Florida has a few persimmon pests: a leaf spot that can cause defoliation, and several borers, that may reduce expected tree lifespan. In 1997, there were over 500 acres planted in Florida. At that time the market was somewhat limited to ethnic Asian, but there may be a renewed market with the popularity of exotic and native fruit. Depending on cultivar, you can harvest fruit from August to November, but fruit can remain on the tree a month after marketable color develops. For more information: “Insect Management in Oriental Persimmon”, “Diospyros kaki“, “Diospyros virginiana“, and “Persimmon in California“.
Persimmons are a great tree for an edible landscape and should be used more in Florida. You can enjoy the fruit or leave it for the many wild animals that are more aware of the deliciousness growing in your backyard.