Harvest time for hardy American persimmons

Diospyros Jiro (photo by V. Arlein)

Every taste reaffirms the botanical name Diospyros, which translates as “food of the gods” (or, more poetically, “Jove’s grain”). And, as usual this time of year, the crop is good, so tastes are aplenty. I’m referring to persimmons, American persimmons: a fruit that you’ve got to grow to enjoy, because when ripe, they’re too soft to travel much further than arm’s length from tree to mouth. Eating them is like eating dried apricots that have been plumped up in water, dipped in honey and given a dash of spice.

All this godlike fruit comes at little cost in terms of time or know-how. Once established, the plant does not call out for pruning or even for help against insects or diseases. Just enjoy. The only caveat is to start out with a good-tasting variety that ripens within the growing season. Here in US Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zone 5 in the Hudson Valley, for flavor, cold-hardiness and ability to ripen within the growing season, I recommend the varieties Szukis, Mohler, Dooley and/or Yates.

In contrast to our native American persimmon, its cousin, the Asian persimmon – also known as kaki – is quite familiar in markets. Kakis have been cultivated in Asia for centuries. Marco Polo saw them near what is now Shanghai and, over the centuries, many varieties have been selected: more than 2,000 of them. Prior to the 20th century, it was the most widely grown fruit in Asia.

Alas, I cannot grow kakis because they generally succumb to winter cold below about zero degrees Fahrenheit (USDA Hardiness Zone 7). But would I want to grow them? As compared with American persimmons, this other “fruit of the gods” is larger – the size of a medium-to-large tomato, depending on variety – and firmer, which is why you do find them in supermarkets. With some varieties, you can bite into and enjoy them while the flesh is crisp. Try that on American persimmon and for the next half-hour, you’ll feel like the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner is at work inside your mouth. As far as flavor, kakis are more watery than American persimmons; perhaps a tad sweeter, but not as rich.

Most gardeners, given the choice, plant kakis rather than American persimmons. After all, kakis taste good and they are larger and easier to handle and store.

I would not grow kakis instead of American persimmons, but I would grow both if I could. And now I’m thinking that it may be worth a try this far north (a possibility I suggested back in 2004 in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden). My friend Vicki (who illustrated the aforementioned book) planted a tree of the kaki variety Jiro in her front yard a few years ago, and this year reaped a bountiful crop of large, beautiful, crisp, tasty persimmons – that’s in Maplewood, New Jersey, USDA Hardiness Zone 6b, only 90 miles and one degree of latitude south of here.

Jiro is not a particularly winter-cold-hardy variety of kaki. What’s more, crisp-ripe kakis, such as Jiro, generally require warmer summers than kakis that only develop full flavor when soft. New Jersey summers may be hot, but nothing like the hot, long summers of Mediterranean climates where these fruits grow so well.

My plan, then, is to plant one of the known cold-hardier varieties of kaki: varieties such as Eureka, Saijo, Giombo and Great Wall. With a prime location, such as a south-facing slope or backed by a warm wall, the trees might survive and ripen their fruits.

Persimmons – both kakis and American persimmons – are interesting fruits, sexually. Individual trees bear only male flowers or only female flowers. Because a fruit is the fleshy expansion of female flowerparts around the seed, only females bear fruit. With most plants, those female parts swell in response to seed development, which in turn is in response to pollination from a male flower.

But not to worry: There’s usually no need to plant useless (except for their pollen) male persimmon trees when growing persimmons. Many cultivated female varieties of persimmon bear fruits parthenocarpically (from the Greek, “virgin fruit”) – that is, without pollination. The previously mentioned varieties of American persimmon are parthenocarpic.

If parthenocarpic fruits were tainted with pollen, they will, of course, contain seeds. With some kaki varieties, bite into the fruit and you experience more than just the presence or lack of seeds. So-called “pollination-variant, non-astringent” kakis are only non-astringent (astringency being that vacuum-cleaner-in-the-mouth sensation) if pollinated. Fortunately, the crisp-ripe Jiro fruits grown by my friend Vicki are a “pollination-constant” variety of kaki: sweet when crisp-ripe whether or not they were pollinated. The fruits have no seeds and no need to be sired by a nearby male.

Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at garden@leereich.com and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at www.leereich.blogspot.com and check out my new, instructional videos at www.youtube.com/leereichfarmden. For more on local homes and gardens, go to Ulster Publishing’s www.homehudsonvalley.com.

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