American Persimmon

(Diospyros virginiana)

American Persimmon fruit
American Persimmon fruit

Cultivars tested

‘Meader’ and ‘Russian Beauty’

Description and site preference

Type and size – large, 30-75 feet if not pruned
Hardiness zone – 4-9
Exposure – full sun in northern areas
Soil – wide range but warm, sandy preferred
Drainage – all but waterlogged areas

Economic factors

Years to harvest – 3-5 for grafted stock
Maintenance – emphasis on pruning
Life of planting – 50-75 years
Machine harvest potential – none (needs multiple hand harvests)
Suitable markets – fresh and processed

American Persimmon after leaf fall
American Persimmon, with fruit, after leaf fall

Notable features

Nutritional highlights – contains vitamin C and calcium
Adaptability – good in most locations
Pest issues – rare, but can be susceptible to anthracnose
Invasive potential – native
Environmental benefits – deep tap root makes it a good dynamic accumulator, late blooming sustains pollinators

Integration characteristics

Shared management – intermediate, similar to most other fruit trees
Shared equipment – pruning
Shared processing – low, needs specialized harvesting and handling
Co-marketing – low to intermediate, needs special handling for fresh fruit

Integration potential – some

Could be a good stand alone crop but would also provide ecological diversity in an integrated system

History and background

The genus name for persimmon literally means “Fruit of the Gods.” Two species of persimmon (Diospyros) have significance as fruit crops: The kaki, or Asian persimmon, was the most widely grown fruit in East Asia until the 20th century. The American persimmon was relished by Native Americans, but has never been embraced as a commercial fruit crop because many cultivars are too soft for commercial shipping. These species are similar in many ways, but the American persimmon is more cold-hardy, with some cultivars hardy to Zone 4 (though ripening can be a problem). It is also softer and dryer than the kaki, but has a richer flavor. American persimmon is also higher in nutrients like vitamin C and calcium.

The following describes the American (Virginiana) variety, unless specified otherwise.

Persimmon trees are usually dioecious (either male or female), but some have complete flowers that make them self-fruitful. They are somewhat unique in that sexual expression can vary from year to year. Trees remain dormant longer than most fruit trees, and blossoming is relatively late in the season and rarely damaged by late-spring frosts.

American persimmon are high in soluble tannins until they are thoroughly ripe. Unripe fruit is extremely astringent, but throughly ripened fruit is sweet and delicious (though some may not like the soft, pudding-like texture). Persimmons can be eaten fresh, dried or cooked into pies, cookies and cakes. Native Americans used them in gruel, cornbread and pudding.

As the name suggests, American persimmon is a native fruit. Its native range is New England to Florida and west to Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Kansas. Kaki has had centuries of improvement through breeding, but American persimmon has had very little breeding attention. Most of the named cultivars are chance seedlings. There is much room for cultivar improvement through selective breeding.

Observations at Carandale Farm

Carandale Farm ordered the cultivars from One Green World in 2006.

The ‘Meader’ cultivar was selected for observation because it was said to be the only available American selection that is reliably self-fertile. It is also one of the most cold-hardy, surviving to at least -25 degrees F, and adapted to regions with cool summers. Fruit ripens early but looses it astringency slowly.

  • Both trees of this cultivar adapted well, though one has surpassed the other in vigor and fruitfulness.
  • Trees have shown no sign of disease or insect damage.
  • Trees reached a height where it is difficult to pick top fruit with a 10-foot ladder. Pruning will be done to restrict height.
  • Trees survived -31.6 degrees F in January 2009, three years after transplanting, with no visible signs of winter injury. (This was the coldest temperature recorded by an on-site weather station since the test plot was established in 2003.)
  • Persimmon is somewhat hard to transplant because it has a brittle tap root.
  • One of the trees started fruiting in 2010 and had a branch-bending crop in 2011.
  • Trees were still in dormancy in 2012 when most other fruit trees in the test plot were in full bloom. When the majority of fruit was lost by freeze damage on many other fruiting species, the late bloom on the persimmon trees avoided freeze damage.
  • Variability was high between two trees of the same cultivar at the same site. One came into bearing much earlier and has always ripened its fruit on the tree. The second tree was slow to fruit, and the fruit was still unripe late in the season. (This may even out over time, but they almost look like two different genotypes.)
  • Fruit can be hard to remove unless very ripe and soft. Multiple harvests are required because some fruit is very soft and sweet, while others remain hard and astringent.
  • For this cultivar (or at least for this one tree), fruit tends to hang on the tree even when dead ripe.
  • This variety obviously has bi-sexual bloom (both stamen and pistol) or produces both male and female flowers because the fruit are never seedless.

‘Russian Beauty’, the second cultivar tested, is a hybrid of kaki and American persimmon. This hybrid is supposed to have the winter hardiness of the American and the quality of the kaki. Carandale Farm established two plants, but one was delayed because it had to re-bud from the scion wood.

  • Both trees passed the winter hardiness test of -31.6 degrees F.
  • Foliage is distinctly different from the ‘Meader’ cultivar.
  • The larger tree was covered with bloom for the first time in 2012, after six years.
  • There was no fruit set. Timing of bloom was a little after ‘Meader.’ Lack of fruit set was probably not weather-related.
  • It is suspected that the blooms were all male, but this was not confirmed. As the tree matures it may produce female flowers, which is often the case with persimmon.
  • It will probably be a couple of years before the second tree comes into bloom.

Discussion

Carandale Farm is close to the northern limit of existing American persimmon cultivars. They cannot recommend it as a reliable, economically sustainable fruit crop for similar areas, but they see potential for this fruit to be grown and marketed in Zone 4. Renewed interest in breeding programs for this native American fruit could push cultivation farther north and improve fruit quality (size, seediness and texture). Climate change could also expand the northern limit.

Kaki, or Asian persimmon, could also be grown in areas north of Zone 6 through selective breeding and hybridization with American persimmon. As Lee Reich said in Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, “Imagine what years of breeding could do for persimmons by comparing a diminutive, puckery, wild apple with a perfectly grown MacIntosh.”

Educating the public will help make the American persimmon economically sustainable in the future. Fully ripened fruit can be sweet and flavorful, but its soft texture and seediness can be a hard sell to those who think a fruit has to be firm (which has been promoted by our globalized food system).

Even in its current state, the American persimmon has qualities that could make it an attractive addition to an integrated cropping system. In northern regions, it should have full sun to accelerate ripening, but it could be inter-planted with low-growing bushes and shrubs. It tolerates almost any soil, except those that are waterlogged, and is virtually insect- and disease-free. Its long taproot should make it a good dynamic accumulator, which would benefit other species. If planted next to nitrogen fixing plants, the symbiotic relationship could lessen the need for outside sources of fertility.

American persimmon could be successful in a local/regional marketing system with a short supply chain. Until improved selections are found, it will probably be best as a stand-alone fruit crop for local retail sales. Anyone interested in pursuing American persimmon as a profitable fruit crop should experiment with a number of selections to find out what works best in their meso-climate. With the selections currently available, American persimmon seems to be an inconsistent fruit, varying in ripening time and quality, from region to region and even from year to year.

References

Wikipedia entry on Persimmon
USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Native Persimmon
Tree Trail 
Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, by Lee Reich

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