Picking a Persimmon Tree

By Scott Aker
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 5, 2009

Q My back yard in Howard County is in full shade, but the front is sunny. Would a persimmon tree grow there, and would it be suitable as a lone specimen in the front?

A Our native persimmon is beautifully adapted to your conditions and is perfectly hardy, or you could find a Japanese persimmon variety that would work.

The native persimmon is a durable and pest-resistant tree that has a very narrow, upright form, even when grown in an open, sunny site. The bark becomes decorative with age, forming blocks framed by deep fissures. The wood resists rot and is heavy. It is still used in the manufacture of golf clubs.

The persimmon is known for its fall color, which ranges from golden yellow to reddish purple, and the fruits are lovely, even if you don't intend to eat them. They are most edible in early December after several frosts have softened them and reduced their astringency. There are a few cultivated varieties of native persimmon, with selections made for larger, tastier fruit that lack some of the tannin found in wild types. Meader is readily available and has both male and female flowers on the same tree, ensuring a more consistent fruit crop.

If it is fruit you desire, opt for a Japanese persimmon. They are smaller trees that can be pruned to a more open shape. They have larger leaves that also develop fall color as good as the native persimmon's.

Japanese varieties are divided into astringent varieties, which must be softened thoroughly to be edible, and non-astringent varieties, which may be eaten while still somewhat firm. The fruits are easily softened by placing them in a closed box with a few shots of vodka. Rubbing alcohol would also work. The alcohol fumes work as a catalyst for enzymes that reduce the astringency.

Most Japanese persimmons are hardy in eastern Howard County but may not fare as well in the western sections of the county. Researchers have bred Patapsco specifically for Maryland conditions, and it should grow well for you. If you don't like the gelatinous texture of the ripe fruit of the astringent types, grow Ichi-Ki-Kei-Jiro. It is non-astringent and hardier than most. Russian researchers have also created a few hybrids of Japanese and American persimmons that are worth trying. Nikita's Gift is the easiest of these to find.

If you want the fruit, it is also important to site your persimmons where nitrogen fertilizers will not be used, so avoid placing it in the middle of a lawn. Excess nitrogen in the soil often leads to fruit drop. Just Fruits and Exotics has many persimmons available (850-926-5644, http://www.justfruitsandexotics.com), along with much more information, though shipping season has ended and will resume in October. Asian persimmons are also available from Edible Landscaping (800-524-4156, http://www.ediblelandscaping.com).

The native or Asian species would make a fine specimen for the front, but plant it in a bed away from a patio or path because the fruit can be messy, especially with the native plant.

Scott Aker is a horticulturist at the U.S. National Arboretum.

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