How to Plant and Grow a Persimmon Tree
Experts share why persimmon trees are good to grow and offer tips on persimmon types and how to care for them.
Persimmons, if unripe, are notorious pucker-producers. When ripe, however, they're delicious.
The botanical name for persimmons, Disospyros, is often translated to "food of the gods." While some say this translation from the Greek isn’t quite accurate, it gives you an idea of how much people throughout history have valued the persimmon.
"There are so many varieties of persimmons, including Japanese and American varieties, light-colored flesh, dark-colored flesh, firm and soft," says fruit expert Ed Laivo.
Persimmons don't ship well commercially, so the selection at your local supermarket is likely to be limited. So what's a persimmon pursuer to do? Plant your own tree.
Odds are there's a variety that will grow well in your neck of the woods. For example, the American persimmon always has to be used soft and is usually grown in the Midwest or the colder regions of the East Coast. The Japanese varieties are all adapted to the milder coastal climates of the United States.
However, there are a few reasons these beautiful trees aren't growing in everyone's yard. According to Laivo, persimmon trees are a little more expensive than your average fruit tree because the propagation is expensive. Not only is the tree hard to bud, but the buds don't always take, and sometimes less than 60% of the trees survive the digging. So growers like Laivo take on the challenge of propagating persimmon trees, and the rest of us can buy young, healthy, grafted trees at the nursery. Sure you'll pay a little more, but the investment offers returns in other ways.
"Persimmon trees are really easy to take care of," Laivo says. "They're actually very adaptable to a wide range of soils, they're disease- and pest-free, and basically drought tolerant after established." Depending on your climate, persimmon trees can be planted in early spring or winter.
Before you spend money on trees, know what you’re buying. There are astringent and non-astringent varieties of persimmons. Knowing this, along with whether your tree is Japanese, Mexican or American, makes all the difference in tree shape and size, and fruit types. There are many different cultivars of persimmon, and it is important to ascertain which type of persimmon you will grow.
Persimmon Tree Types
American persimmons are not usually self-pollinating, but some named varieties are. If you choose a native seedling however, you will need a second tree to get a good harvest. Also, Japanese and American persimmons will not cross pollinate. Whether you buy an Asian or American persimmon, consider a named cultivar because these have been selected for better fruit. American fruit is very soft when ripe and with thin skin not good for shipping — another reason to grow your own.
All American persimmon trees have astringent fruit from tannins — like those in tea — so don’t eat fruit until fully ripe. Skin will be slightly puckered, and fruit will be soft. Ripening occurs from September through October depending upon where trees are grown.
American persimmon trees are the largest of the species, so consider the size of your planting area before buying an American variety. Mature size can be anywhere from 35' to 50' tall depending upon growing conditions and pruning.
American persimmons make great shade trees and have beautiful fall color. They are also very cold tolerant and perform well in Zones 5-9.
While American persimmon trees grow to be large shade trees, the Japanese persimmon is smaller and is often grown as a specimen tree. Persimmons, grown and produced throughout Asia, are one of the oldest fruits grown for market. D. kaki, known commonly as the Japanese or Asian persimmon, is not as hardy as American varieties and should be grown in Zones 7-11. Fuyu Asian persimmons are non-astringent, and the fruit keeps well for several weeks after picking. Fuyus and other Asian persimmons are self-pollinating. Ichi-Ki-Kei-Jiro persimmon is the hardiest of the Asian varieties. Non-astringent persimmons like the Fuyu can be eaten when first ripe like an apple, or let ripen further to the jelly stage to be eaten with a spoon.
There is also D. texana, the Mexican or black persimmon, which is a small tree or large shrub grown in the southern part of the North American continent. Its small, black fruit matures in August. The berries can be eaten when ripe, but are often stripped by animals. It is also the host plant of the Grey Hairstreak and Henry’s Elfin butterflies.
How to Plant Your Persimmon Tree
Persimmons are great trees for the home gardener, and they're easy to plant. First, dig a hole wider than it is deep. Then, choose a plant with nicely developed roots. The crown should sit a tad above the soil line to accommodate settling. Laivo recommends backfilling the soil to create a pyramid in the center of the hole. Set the tree on top, and add enough dirt to fill the hole.
Laivo doesn't amend the soil because the roots need to adapt to the nutrients that will be available for the next 100-plus years. Instead, he uses other protective measures like mulch. Mulch helps to cut down on evaporation and also keeps the roots cooler in the summertime. Laivo recommends high-density planting or several trees planted in one hole in smaller yards to provide lots of fruit, great pollination and easy harvesting all in one compact area.
Caring for Your Persimmon Tree
Persimmons are also very easy to maintain, as far as pruning is concerned. Simply prune limbs that are crossing and dangling. Laivo suggests structural cuts or cutting branches back to about the third bud inside the tree. Structural cuts create strong branches to support lots of fruit. Laivo also prunes for size control and doesn't let his trees grow any taller than the height his hands can reach over his head. Anything above that is too hard to harvest without a ladder. Just remember the "kiss" method: keep it short and simple. Moderate pruning can also help reduce the tree's tendency to be alternate bearing — or fruiting every other year.
Asian persimmons are cold hardy to about zero degrees, though some varieties, such as Eureka and Sheng, tolerate cold to minus 20 degrees, says New York "Farmdener" Lee Reich, Ph.D., author of books including "Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden," "Landscaping with Fruit" and "Grow Fruit Naturally" who considers himself "more than a gardener and less than a farmer."
American persimmons are hardy to minus 25 degrees, possibly colder, says Reich. "My climate is too cold for Asian persimmons," says Dr. Reich. "American persimmons that do well here include Szukis, Mohler, Dooley and Yates. All have excellent flavor. Both species need sufficient summer heat to ripen their fruits."
How to Eat Persimmons
When are persimmons ripe?
While most fruit needs warm weather to ripen, persimmons are ready during the fall. Persimmons are a fall crop primarily ripening in September all the way to the beginning of the next year. There are two varieties of persimmons. The astringent fruit is eaten when it has become jelly-soft.
The non-astringent fruit, which is gaining in popularity, is eaten while still firm. According to Laivo, the American palette likes firm fruit, and so the Fuyu persimmon is a very common choice. Persimmons are a great source of Vitamins A and C as well as potassium and fiber.
Tip: To ripen American astringent persimmons in a jiffy, place the fruit in the freezer overnight. Remove the fruit from the freezer and allow the cold-ripened fruit to thaw.