An American persimmon full of nearly ripe fruit.
The American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is a slow growing, deciduous tree that ranges from Florida north to Connecticut, west to Iowa, and south to Texas. It is part of the Ebenaceae which is the tropical hardwood Ebony family. American persimmons have very hard, dense wood like its relatives. It is a relatively long-lived tree living 50 to 75 years. Native persimmons usually grow solitarily, but sometimes in thickets at the edges of fields, rivers, roadsides, in dry forests, on rocky hillsides, and in rich floodplains.
These medium-sized trees usually grow to 15-20-feet tall, but can reach 80 feet. Bark is grey to nearly black, and on mature trees it is deeply furrowed forming 1 ½-inch rectangular blocks like a tile mosaic. The stiff, smooth-edged leaves are an elongated oval and are pointed at each end. The 2- to 6-inch leaves are lustrous, dark-green on top and light-colored underneath. Fall color is clear yellow to faded crimson. Leaves appear alternately in different sizes along the branches. Twigs are fuzzy and the 2-scaled leaf buds are very dark. The ¾-inch fragrant, pale yellow-green flowers are radially symmetrical flowers and bell-shaped. Flowers appear late in the spring. The globular fruit which are, botanically-speaking, berries are 1 – 1 ½ inches in diameter and has a thin leathery skin. Fruit are orange throughout with a texture between gooey pudding and dried apricots. Each fruit has 1 to 6 large, flat brown seeds. American persimmon fruit are smaller and redder-orange than Asian varieties. Asian varieties are either astringent or non-astringent. Whereas, American varieties are all astringent. Astringent varieties contain alum so unless fully ripe, they will give you an unforgettable pucker.
American persimmons prefer full sun but will tolerate some shade. They like to grow at the edges of fields and roadsides or in dry forests and in floodplains. They favor moist soil but will also adapt to a wide variety of soil types. They grow best in slightly acid soil. American persimmons are hardy from Zone 4 to 10. Hardy down to -25 degrees F.
Persimmons, especially American persimmons, are low maintenance trees. But, these trees are not well-suited for long-term container culture because of their very long taproot. They will do better planted along a border or as a solitary specimen tree at least 12 feet away from a structure. In an orchard planting, it is best to plant the trees 20 feet apart. Persimmons can be started from seeds, bare root, or as small container trees.
It is a good idea to water daily the first two weeks after planting. Then, cut back to watering every other day in the third week and deep watering once a week by the fourth week after planting. But, once these trees have established root systems they will rarely need additional watering. Only in extremely hot or drought conditions will they possibly need extra irrigation. American persimmons will tolerate drought but will bare less fruit.
Avoid high nitrogen fertilizer formulations since they can cause premature fruit drop in young trees. It is best to use weak organic fertilizers or compost to fertilize your persimmon trees. Apply a chelated plant tonic, fish emulsion, or 5 to 10 pounds of compost twice a year in early spring and mid-summer. If you feel more comfortable using inorganic fertilizer, then use 2 ounces of 10-10-10 (N-P-K) per age of the tree. When your trees are growing about a foot per year, then they are getting adequate fertilizer.
Pruning and Thinning
American persimmon trees should be pruned to a modified central leader or open center initially. Then, they will only require remedial pruning once they reach fruit bearing age. Each year remove dead limbs, downward growing branches, and crossed branches. Also, shorten any long branches that might break under a heavy fruit load. Occasionally prune to limit the size of the tree to ease in harvesting fruit. Try to keep your tree no taller than your hands held over your head. These trees are prone to suckering so remove suckers at the base of the tree once a year. Persimmons are inclined to alternate bearing from year to year. Thinning the fruit to 10 inches apart will help to prevent over cropping causing fruit not to mature to desired size during the heavy bearing years.
Native persimmons are dioecious and form either male or female flowers. That is, they need both male and female trees to produce a good crop. It is best to plant a male pollinator like ‘American Male’. Only a few American persimmon varieties, such as ‘Meader’ are self-fertile. Pollination can be accomplished by wind or insects.
Persimmons can be propagated by seeds, rooted cuttings, grafts or suckers. For propagation by seed, it is necessary to stratify the seeds 2 to 3 months after extracting them from the fruit. Keep the seedlings shaded for the first 4 to 6 weeks. Then gradually acclimate them to the outdoors after the last frost date. It will take about 4 to 9 years before the seedlings will produce their first crop of fruit. Hardwood or root cuttings can be used on native persimmons. Use wood that is 2 to 3 years old for the hardwood cuttings. Cleft grafts, whip grafts, or chip budding are all good methods for developing new varieties of Asian persimmons or American persimmons where American persimmon is usually used as the rootstock because of its hardiness. Grafted trees begin fruiting in about 3 years. But, the easiest method to propagate American persimmons is by simply digging up and transplanting suckers found at the base of the parent tree. Suckers will produce fruit in about 4 to 6 years.
Pest and Disease
American persimmons are rarely affected by pest problems. Although, a few pest problems can occur such as ambrosia beetles, twig girdlers, persimmon borers, bagworms, fall webworms, scale, mealybugs, ants, and psyllids. Possible diseases are fungal persimmon wilt, sooty mold, anthracnose leaf spot. Fungal wilt disease can even kill established trees. Deer, raccoons, birds, and squirrels can also damage trees and eat the fruit.
Harvest and Storage
Be patient, native persimmons take a long time to ripen, and harvest time covers a period of weeks. Fruit need to turn deep orange or bright red-orange in color and become gooey-soft before the sweetness overtakes the astringency. The fruit usually ripen in September and October. Fruit should be hand-picked when possible since they are prone to bruising. If some fruit are too high to reach, spread an old sheet beneath the tree and shake the branches. Then separate out the unripe fruit. Pruners should be used to clip the stem (pedicel) and the sepal cap (calyx) needs to be preserved to extend the fruit’s shelf life. A mature American persimmon can produce up to 30 pounds of fruit in a heavy-bearing year. Persimmons can be stored up to 4 months if kept cool and dry place or frozen for up to 6 months. Fruit can be picked while still not yet ripe and the astringency can be removed by several different methods. The fruit can be placed in a brown paper bag with a bruised banana or apple. The ethylene gas will ripen the fruit. One can also remove the astringency by freezing the fruit overnight, sealing the fruit in a plastic bag with dry ice or by drying the fruit.
The genus name of persimmons, Diospyros, loosely translates from Greek as “food of the gods”. This exotically delicious fruit, as well as the leaves, can be used in a multitude of ways. Although, eating a fresh, well-ripened persimmon is hard to beat. Persimmons make tasty puddings, breads, cookies, pancakes, jellies, jams, and syrups. They can also be dried, candied, or ground and dried into fruit leathers. They can also be brewed into beers, wines, and liquors. The leaves can be dried and ground to make a healthy tea. The seeds can be roasted and ground into a black powder which can be used as a coffee extender. It is best not to use the ground seeds as a fulltime coffee substitute because it can cause gastric upset in some people.
The fruit are an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, B-complex vitamins, calcium, copper, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and dietary fiber. Due to its high vitamin, mineral and other nutrient content persimmons are capable of a multitude of health benefits. Consuming persimmons can boost energy and bolster the immune system by increasing metabolic activity aided by B-complex vitamins like thiamin and folic acid as well as vitamin C. They help increase the efficiency of the digestive tract because of their high dietary fiber content and aid in the creation of red blood cells due to their copper content. The fruit contains betulinic acid, which is a proven anti-tumor compound, as well as having anti-cancer properties provided by phenolic compounds such as catechins and gallocatechins.
These trees make excellent ornamental landscape specimens with their interesting bark, colorful yellow-orange to red fall foliage, and lovely orange fruit that often stay on the tree long after the leaves have fallen. The fruit can be used for livestock feed, especially for hogs. The dense persimmon wood was used early in the twentieth century to make golf club shafts, as well as, the heads of woods. The tough close-grained wood is also used for drum sticks, flutes, wooden spoons, longbows, billiard cues, and furniture. American persimmon rootstock is often used when grafting Asian varieties to make them more cold hardy.
Persimmons can cause bezoars or gastric blockages in rare cases in some people, but more commonly in horses. Don’t plant these trees near sidewalks or driveways to avoid splattered fruit from being tracked indoors. Although there are no poisonous look-alikes, it is still prudent to have a plant identification expert check the fruit before foraging for the American persimmon in the wild.
Most American persimmons are native seedlings. Yet, there are numerous grafted named cultivars used in commercial orchards but these varieties are rarely available to retail customers. Some of these named cultivars are self-fertile but most produce larger crops with a pollinator. The following are some of the better named cultivars:
‘American Male’: one of the best pollinators.
‘Early Golden’: medium round fruit; early to mid-season ripening; sweet flavor; usually self-fruitful; the most commonly planted American persimmon variety.
‘John Rick’: very large round fruit; late season ripening; excellent flavor; productive.
‘Killen’: medium sized fruit; good flavor; moderately productive.
‘Meader’: medium round fruit, early ripening; sweet flavor; self-fruitful; very cold hardy.
References and External Links
- Brill, Steve. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild Places. pp. 178-180. New York: Harper, 1994.
- Creasy, Rosalind. Edible Landscaping. pp. 281-283. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2010.
- Deane, Green. “Persimmon Provisions.” Eat the Weeds. 6 September 2016. http://www.eattheweeds.com/persimmons-pure-pucker-power-2/.
- Krewer, Gerald. “Home Garden Persimmons.” UGA Extension (C 784). 1 January 1996. http://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.cfm?number=C784.
- Nardozzi, Charlie. “Persimmons.” National Gardening Association, Learning Library. 23 June 2008. http://garden.org/learn/articles/view/291/.
- Peterson, Lee Allen. A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America. p. 194. New York: Hough Mifflin Harcourt, 1977.
- Reich, Lee. Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. pp. 97-113. Portland: Timber Press, 2004.
- Wright, Shawn. “American Persimmon.” UK Cooperative Extension Service. September 2011. Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. Accessed 10 October 2016. http://www.uky.edu/Ag/New Crops/infosheets/persimmon.pdf.