BY NORIS LEDESMA
FAIRCHILD TROPICAL BOTANIC GARDEN
As published in the Miami Herald
The American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is native from South Florida to New York and the central parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. In Florida, they grow wild in the fields, pinelands and moist woods across our state. South of Lake Okeechobee, it was the indigenous people who had the most success making use of the American persimmon for food throughout the swampy lowlands. Today, one can find remnant stands of American persimmon that were planted hundreds of years ago, and they still produce fruit.
The American persimmon has probably been the most neglected of our native fruits and is now quite uncommon. The American persimmon growing along the riverbanks and swamps across our continent are now a rare treat. For years the fruit was considered a weed tree and was cut out to make room for crops or to give more popular forest trees more room to grow. There are some reports dating back to 1907 that describe varieties that are still propagated today. Even then, some interested parties were trying to create a market for the fruit that would justify the planting of large orchards. Alas, they were not highly successful.
The tree grows well in the South Florida landscape and excels with seasonal inundation, unlike most of our home garden fruit. The tree is small, less than 20 feet in height, and it sprouts profusely from the roots, forming a persimmon coppice over time. It is a slow-growing tree. The tree is admired for its picturesque form, zig-zag branching, beautiful foliage and colorful fruit. The glossy, leathery leaves make the persimmon tree a nice addition to the landscape. It is also one of the only trees we have in South Florida that can provide Autumnal color to our landscapes.
The wood is close grained, heavy, hard, and strong. The American persimmon is perfect for cultivating bromeliads and orchids, which root easily on the trunk and thrive with the ample winter light within the bare canopy. Because of its hardness, smoothness, and even texture, it was particularly desirable for wood turning and even making golf club heads.
Male and female flowers are usually borne on separate trees, but female flowers can self pollinate. The flowers appear between March and June within its botanical range and from March through May in areas where it grows best. The flowers are pale cream and attract bees for pollination.
The fruit is green before ripening and may vary in color when ripe from yellow, orange, dark reddish purple and sometimes even black. You can tell they are ripe when they become soft to the touch. If eaten too green they are highly astringent. They are enjoyed by people as well as many species of wildlife for food. They taste similar to a dried date or fig, and the large persimmon found in some fruit markets isn’t nearly as rich and flavorful as our smaller native persimmon.
The fruit can be picked when they are yellow and will finish ripening off the tree, but the best way to enjoy them is by picking them ripe from the tree. Fruits drop ripe from the tree from the end of September to Spring. The pulp can be use in delicious cakes, cookies, puddings, jams and pies. Dried fruit is added to baked goods and occasionally is fermented with hops, cornmeal, or wheat bran into a beer-like beverage. The dried, roasted, ground seeds have been used as a substitute for coffee.
Persimmon is easily raised from seed. They should be soaked 2 to 3 days before planting. Seeds lose their viability through extremes of heat, cold or dryness. They should be planted in Spring in shallow holes in light soils with plenty of humus and covered to a depth of about one half inch.
The trees grow following the end of the dry season and usually flush only once. Their growth is slow; the home gardener has to have a degree of patience. The trees should be heavily mulched and fertilizer should be applied once at the beginning of the rainy season with a granular formulation of 8-3-9.
The tree will remain green and bushy until the end of the summer and as we enter the fall, the older leaves will turn light red and drop from the tree. The fruit often hang on to the tree long after the leaves have fallen. All leaves will drop during the winter and the tree will stand bare until new leaves push out following the cool, dry season. Pruning should be done during the winter to remove the height from the tree and to form the canopy. Because there are no leaves, it is easy to visualize your pruning work.
If you are looking for a green (and temperate) alternative for your garden planting, the American persimmon is a good choice. Its is a unique tree, capable of growing across a large portion of the United States, and can adapt to many different soil types and conditions.
Noris Ledesma is curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.