Sweet, juicy persimmons are easier to grow than you might expect.
There are many good reasons for growing your own persimmon tree, the first of which is they are not particularly fussy about soil and they are nearly pest-free. You don’t need to worry about chilling hours as much as with other fruit trees, and they bloom late enough in the season to avoid frost damage.
Persimmon is a tropical tree that grows best in Hardiness Zones 7 to 10, and they are large. Mature persimmon trees can grow from 15 to 60 feet tall and 20 feet across, with a lovely rounded canopy. Leaves are both glossy and leathery on top, with a brown, fuzzy undersurface. These leaves will fall off in autumn, being deciduous, but that makes it easier to prune and manage the tree during dormancy.
Your first decision, when growing persimmon, is to decide which type you want.
Types of persimmon
Persimmons are actually the fruit of several trees in the Diospyros (‘Zeus’s wheat’) genus. This group of trees is divided between valuable, dense ebony lumber (Diospyros ebenum, et al) and fruit-producing varieties. Within the fruit-producing varieties, there are some you can eat right away, and some you’d be better off waiting a while.
The North American native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) tends to be smaller and seedier than its more popular Asian cousin (D. kaki). The Oriental, or Japanese persimmon is further divided into two groups: astringent and non-astringent. That astringency [read ‘pucker factor’] is caused by tannins. Those tannins can make your mouth feel as though you just washed your mouth out with witch hazel, which I do not recommend. Generally speaking, the astringent varieties need to be fully ripe and soft before becoming sweet and delicious.
With over 2,000 cultivars of fruit-producing persimmon trees, you have several to choose from, including:
Native and Oriental persimmon trees will not cross-pollinate.
Persimmon fruits and flowers
Native persimmon trees are dioecious, meaning they have male or female flowers, but not both. If you have one of these, you will need two trees. Oriental persimmon trees have both male and female flowers. In either case, those flowers are relatively small, creamy white, with a large green calyx. The calyx is the cup-like structure seen at the base of a flower’s petals and is the hard, dried leaves on top of a harvested persimmon. Botanically, a persimmon fruit is a berry because it is formed from a single fertilized plant ovary.
Fruits mature in autumn, staying on the tree into winter. Don’t be fooled, however. Squirrels and rats have an uncanny ability to gnaw the insides out of your persimmons from the side facing away from your windows. I have a friend who discovered, to her dismay, that every single piece of fruit, and there were many pieces of fruit, had all been hollowed out while she wasn’t looking.
If you only have room for one persimmon tree, just make sure it is a self-pollinating variety. Both ‘Hachiya’ and ‘Fuyu’ will produce fruit without a second tree.
How to grow a persimmon tree
If you want to grow a persimmon tree from seed, you will need to put it in the refrigerator for a couple of months. This is called stratification and it mimics the effects of winter weather. Unlike other fruit trees, which are pretty much companionable to a wide variety of root stock grafts, persimmon trees are not as amenable. You are probably best off buying bare root stock from a reputable seller. Just be gentle with your young tree. The immature taproot breaks easily.
Persimmon trees perform best in soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5, which may be more acidic than is present in your soil. Keep in mind that altering pH is an uphill battle that requires constant attention and effort. If you are determined, you can acidify your soil to make things more hospitable for your persimmon tree. Your persimmon tree will benefit from good air flow, but the wood tends to be brittle, so provide protection from strong winds.
When planting a young persimmon tree, it is critical that the tree is planted at the proper depth. Then, cut the aboveground portion down to 3 feet in height and mud it in well. You will also want to provide sunburn and herbivore feeding protection. Deer, rats, squirrels, birds, and gophers will gnaw roots, stems, bark, or fruit, depending on the species. Even coyotes enjoy the occasional persimmon.
Select a location with plenty of sunlight, though partial shade will work, too. California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc. suggests keeping persimmon trees away from eucalyptus trees. I’m sure there is a good reason, I just don’t know what it is.
Regular irrigation will improve fruit size and quality, though the trees are somewhat drought tolerant. Mature trees will need 36 to 48 inches of water each year.
Persimmon trees do not need a lot in the way of feeding. In fact, if you give them too much nitrogen, they will drop their fruit! Over-feeding, over-watering, and too much boron in the soil can cause blossom drop and young fruit drop. Top dressing with aged compost and some mulch is probably a better way to go, unless a lab-based soil test tells you some important plant nutrient is missing.
Persimmon fruit forms along the sides and at the tips of long, current year stems. If those stems are too long, the branches are likely to break. During the dormant season, train your persimmon tree into a modified central leader or open vase system, removing any dead, diseased, or rubbing branches. Each year, you will want to perform light to medium pruning for size, structure, and air flow. Persimmon can also be pruned into a lovely espalier. Heavy fruit loads can cause branch loss, so fruit thinning is a good idea.
Persimmon pests and diseases
While relatively pest-free, persimmons may occasionally be attacked by root nematodes, mealybugs and scale insects. If you see ant trails, look more closely for signs of scale infestation. You can use sticky barriers to eliminate the protection provide by ants. Other minor pests include whiteflies, thrips, and mites.
The diseases most likely to impact a persimmon tree include armillaria root rot, grey mold, leaf blight, leaf spot, and Phytophthora root and crown rot. Fusarium dieback may also occur.
More commonly, nutrient deficiencies can cause a number of symptoms. Low iron cause cause leaf bleaching, while insufficient calcium leads to leaf curling, and magnesium deficiencies cause brown spots on leaves. Sunburn damage is common, so whitewash exposed areas and keep trees well irrigated during the peak of summer.
We should all have such problems…
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!