You will notice, I’m sure, that this article is now somewhat outdated, seasonally speaking. What with the Holidays and just the general business of life, this piece slipped away from me. What started in December is now being posted in February… These things happen. So what I ask of you as you read this article is this: take yourself back to the beginning of winter, just as autumn slipped away. Read at night or early morning, curled up with a hot cup of tea and a warm buttered scone…. Enjoy!
This year as summer and its bounty of fruit slipped away, cooler nights requiring thicker bedding, the glossy green leaves on our persimmons started to turn. As the nights passed and the first of the season's storms blew through, the yellow, red and rust leaves fell away leaving only the perfect orange orbs hanging from the bare branches.
Diospyros, translating roughly to ‘Divine Fruit’ or ‘Fruit of the Gods’ says it all. This fruit that seems to glow from within is simply divine. Though I must admit this is only a sentiment I've acquired in the last decade or so. I think as a child I must have bitten into an unripe Hachiya and that was that. The tongue twisting, cheek tingling astringency is like nothing else. “Eating a thoroughly ripened persimmon is as pleasurable a gustatory experience as eating an unripe one is horrible” - Lee Reich
Many of us know there are two types of persimmon, astringent and non-astringent and their two most well known varieties - Hachiya and Fuyu. Both are regularly found in most grocery stores this time of year (early autumn to beginning of winter). As I harvested fruit from my trees of both variety, I found myself wondering if there were others...there must be. This started me on a new research project!
For those readers unfamiliar with the two main commercial varieties, the Fuyu is the flatter, crunchy type that can be eaten like an apple, the Hachiya is the oblong astringent variety that must be ripened to softness to be eaten.
The answer to my research is a resounding YES, there are many other varieties. In fact there are over 2,000 other Asian varieties of Diospyros kaki! Native to Japan, China, Burma, and Nepal they have been cultivated for centuries in these countries. It wasn’t until 1854 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy ‘opened’ Japan to the West, that seeds brought from Japan made it to California. By 1930, California had over 98,000 bearing trees on over 3,000 acres, but real estate developments reduced persimmon groves to only 540 acres by 1968.
In addition to the Asian persimmon there is a native North American fruit, Diospyros virginiana found on the east coast, from Connecticut to Florida and west to Kansas. “The American persimmon is softer and drier than the kaki, with a richer flavor, something like a wet, dried apricot that has been drizzled with honey and given a dash of spice” - Lee Reich
Persimmon trees are very easy to grow, being nearly pest and disease resistant, frost (to zero degrees) and drought tolerant especially once established. They do not require winter chilling and will even grow in subtropical and temperate climates. To top it all off, they are quite picturesque. With large lush drooping leaves, persimmons look almost tropical in the Spring and Summer. Later they turn to bright yellow, orange and reds in the fall. They are long lived trees, a six-hundred-year-old grafted ‘Saijo’ tree is still growing in Japan.
Prune your tree when dormant, making sure to create a sturdy framework when young to prevent brittle branches from breaking later with a heavy crop. Remember, flowering and the subsequent fruit sets on one-year-old wood, so make sure not to cut this all off when pruning.
They have lovely, extremely inconspicuous flowers in the spring: the single female flowers are cream colored connected to a green calyx, the male flowers have a slight pink tinge and often come in threes. They both bloom on one-year-old wood. Persimmon trees are usually male or female but some trees have both flowers. The tree can also alternate from year to year!
In regards to the fruit, when talking with friends and family, I hear time and again that they either love or hate it. Most people could try the non-astringent Fuyu and probably love it. They are crisp and sweet with a crunchy skin, eaten like an apple, but to experience a truly ripe fruit of the astringent variety can be a transcendent experience. The fruit when ripe has a translucent skin, so delicate it’s likely to split before you can get it to your mouth. (Use a spoon!) The flesh has a smooth, jelly-like texture with five clear lobes with a slightly firmer consistency. They are sweet with an earthy, honeyed note.
Persimmons are often the size and shape of tomatoes with colors ranging from pale yellow through orange, to crimson and deep red. In some cultivars, ripe fruits are so soft, they are almost liquid.
There are a few ways to ripen the fruit artificially, but the fruit needs to be near to ripeness on the tree. Fruit will also ripen completely if left on the kitchen counter. The easiest way to ripen a persimmon is to put it in a plastic bag with an apple. It will be ready for eating in three to four days. They can also be frozen and then thawed, when they would be perfect for baking in a pudding, cake, or bread.
After reading about hundreds of varieties, I’ve distilled all the info to recommend a few to you, my dear readers.
Astringent - Hachiya type.
‘Hachiya’ - Major market persimmon, rated one of the best in the world. Large, oblong-conical fruit. Glossy skin, deep orange. Excellent honey-sweet flesh with notes of raisins and brown sugar. When fully ripe, the skin will be thin, ready to burst, feeling like a water balloon in hand, flesh will be clear and jelly-like. Great for drying. Midseason to late. Tree is vigorous, doing very well in California.
‘Eureka’ - Medium-large, bright orange to deep red, does not need pollination, late harvest, of excellent quality.
‘Honan Red’ - Small, round, thin skinned fruit, deep red, heavy producers. Very sweet and rich flavor, fruit is smooth and fiber free. Excellent for eating and drying. Ripens midseason to late.
‘Saijo’ - Small, plum shaped balls of honey. Yellow-orange flesh, very sweet flavor, ranked one of the best by gourmets. Free of seeds and a constant bearer. One of the first persimmons to ripen, starting in September.
Non Astringent - Fuyu type or ‘Apple persimmon’
‘Fuyu’ - Leading market persimmon, large with reddish-orange skin. Flat bottomed, slightly four-sided. Ripe fruit offers an excellent spicy-sweet tannin-free flavor, some say cantaloupe- like. Flesh is a lighter, pale orange. Fruit packs and ships well. Heavy producer. Ripens late, fruit can stay on the tree for up to two months. Most popular cultivar in Japan.
‘Jiro’ - Glossy tangerine-hued, medium sized, flat and squat. Jiro is a very attractive tree, growing to about 15 ft. Self-fertile, hardy to USDA zones 7 to 10. Jiro ripens one to two weeks before Fuyu and can be sold as Fuyu.
‘Tsurunko’ ‘Tsuru Noko’ or ‘Chocolate Persimmon’ - Medium to small fruit, orange-red skin over flesh the color of brown sugar and cocoa. The flavor reflects the color with notes of cocoa, sweet baking spices and honey. A unique persimmon, non astringent when pollinated, the seeds change the flesh chocolate brown, when unpollinated, and seedless the flesh stays orange and astringent. Ripens late October to early November.
‘Hyakume’ - Known as the sweetest persimmon of all. Medium to large roundish fruit. Buff yellow orange skin and dark cinnamon speckled flesh. Flavor is sweet with notes of cinnamon, brown sugar and dried apples. Texture varies from crisp and succulent when young to soft and custard-like as it ripens. This fruit can be somewhat unattractive externally, but the flavor more than makes up for it. They also store well. Ripens mid season.
Well there you have it, just a tiny portion of the incredible selection available to all of us. What choices! With all the research and wanting to shop locally (Sonoma County, CA) I ended up choosing the astringent ‘Saijo’. I bought it at our local nursery Harmony Farms as a bare root tree, and planted it the next day. In a few years, we’ll have an avenue of persimmon trees to drive through as you reach our house. I can’t think of anything more beautiful.