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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath

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Are Persimmons Puckery Or Pleasingly Pleasant?

Our radio show received quite a bit of 'feedback' after I told a listener named Loki (yes, 'Loki') who was looking to replicate the taste of a specific (and delicious) persimmon that wild persimmons tasted astringent, and that named, grafted varieties would taste much better.

Michael, "a long time listener" in Northern Angelina County, Texas titled his email response "Persimmon slander" and wrote: "Native persimmons are very tasty if they are ripe enough to fall to the ground or be shaken easily off the tree. They are a favorite of raccoons—they clean the ground and climb the tree for more."

Raccoon gardening! It could be the next big trend—at least you'd grow a lot of sweet corn.

Anyway, he wasn't the only conscientious objector. Like many others, Lauren in Nashville wrote: "in my experience the fruit of native persimmons has to experience a few frosts before it can develop a more 'comfortable' flavor."

Hmmm. Could this be true? Crops like carrots and kale do taste much sweeter after a frost…

So I called our fruit guy Lee Reich, who says that it's just a coincidence of timing in this case. To have good flavor, he explains, persimmons need to be dead ripe, and the fruits ripen very late in the season, often around the time of the first frosts. Lee says that wild or cultivated, you need to be patient with American persimmons and wait until the color changes and the fruits are soft—otherwise Lee warns that the flavor, to repeat his favorite quote from Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony, 'will draw your mouth awry with torment'.

Note that we just specified American persimmons. That's because we also heard from Fran in Northeast Oklahoma, who noted that our original persimmon caller, Loki (Thor's mischievous half-brother) wanted to replicate the taste of fruits a friend had while traveling in Europe. She writes: "If Loki's friend enjoyed persimmons in Italy, they were probably Asian persimmons (species name: kaki) rather than the American kind (known as virginiana). Unfortunately," she continues, "Asian persimmons are unlikely to thrive in Loki's NJ climate, whereas the natives grow well into New England.

Fran continues: "We grow a grafted American variety ("ProK"). The fruits ripen from early September through November, are the size of an apricot, and taste like apricot jam—we even spread some on toast, as well as eating them fresh. They are much tastier than the wild ones, which to me taste sweet but bland. PS: But I really enjoyed the Asian persimmons I had while travelling in Japan and wish we could grow them here."

So, after lots more questions, Lee Reich pestering and some actual independent research I have come to the conclusion that there are basically four different kinds of persimmons. (At least that's the way I see it.)

The first are the wild ('native') Americans that grow naturally from Connecticut to Florida, and as far West as Kansas. The trees reach 50 feet high at maturity, and most people don't think the fruits are very tasty, although the odd tree might produce enjoyable fruit (especially late in the season and certainly if you're a raccoon).

Then there are what I'll call the 'cultured Americans'—named varieties selected for better flavor and grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks so you can reach the fruits. Lee Reich raves about these types, but suggests that people do some research and select the best variety for their climate, especially as you get further North, where you want to make sure that your tree will deliver ripe fruit before heavy snow.

Now the Asians. As with the American types, there is only one Asian species (which many people just call 'kaki persimmons'), but Lee divides them into two groups, 'astringent' and 'non-astringent'. Luckily, the so-called 'astringent' ones only taste that way if you pick them too early; like American persimmons, they have to stay on the tree until they feel soft. But you can pick the non-astringent types as soon as they color up, while they're still firm.

So: Is Oklahoma Fran correct that the Asian types need a warm climate?

In general, yes. And double yes if you want to grow one of the non-astringent Asians, as Lee explains that they have no sense of humor about cold winters.

If your winters are really cold, you definitely need an American, and one whose fruit will ripen up in your short season. Lee rates the Asians as being hardy in zones 7 to 10, which is roughly the lower third of the country and most of California. But in his latest book on the subject, "Grow Fruit Naturally", he notes that some 'astringent Asians' are hardy down to Zone 5, and told me that Loki should be able to find an astringent Asian variety that will survive and ripen in New Jersey. ("Smith's Best" and "Saijo" were two names he mentioned.)

And are the Asians really that much more flavorful than a named grafted American?

Lee explains that Asian persimmons are definitely bigger and juicier. He describes their flavor as 'sweet, but not as rich' as the best cultivated American varieties. If you live in a warmish clime you can grow both and decide for yourself—most of the Asians require a mild winter, but lack of a chill doesn't bother the American types.

Two more quick things a potential gardener needs to know:

One is that these plants have a long taproot, so they don't transplant well once established (which is why we advise people not to try and move wild ones around) and need a deeper planting hole than other fruit trees.

Also: some varieties require a separate male plant to get fruit, while some are self-fruitful. So again, do good research before you buy your trees. But this little bit of work should be well worth the effort: The final thought Lee left me with is that their Latin name, Diospyros, means 'food of the gods'.


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