The American persimmon is a semi-wild fruit that is indigenous to eastern North America, with its native range extending from Florida to Connecticut. The fruit is smaller than the common Asian persimmon (D. kaki) which can be found in supermarkets. American persimmons require a long season to ripen and unripe fruits are extremely astringent and unpalatable. Ripe fruits are very sugary sweet and have a soft jelly-like texture with flavors reminiscent of butterscotch and caramel. American persimmons were eaten for hundreds of years by the indigenous people of North America. The trees themselves can grow 50′-75′ but in cultivation are commonly maintained at 15′-30′. Persimmons are low maintenance and don’t have any major pests or diseases in Michigan. The trees generally flower as late as May and are rarely if ever harmed by late spring frosts. They’re dioecious and in most cases require both male and female plants to set fruit. Parthenocarpic and polygamodioecious (bisexual) individuals also exist which pose the potential for self fruitfulness. Polygamodioecious individuals like ‘Szukis’ produce female flowers on male plants; ‘Szukis’ will bear fruit in isolation or can be used as a pollenizer for female varieties. ‘Meader’ is a parthenocarpic female that produces seedless fruit without pollenization; if pollenized ‘Meader’ will bear fruit with seeds. American persimmon trees are low maintenance and don’t have any major pests or diseases in Michigan. The biggest challenge facing persimmon cultivation in Michigan is getting them to fully ripen. Most of the varieties available today have not yet been trialed this far north.
CROP HISTORY & BREEDING POTENTIAL:
In 1880 the first named American persimmon was selected out of the wild in Illinois. This original variety, ‘Early Golden’, would go on to be the female parent for many of the cultivars developed throughout the twentieth century. Elwyn Meader of Rochester, New Hampshire, was interested in American persimmons and developed one supposed self-fruitful cultivar called ‘Meader’. Another one of the more famous American persimmon breeders was the late James Claypool who began his work in the 1970’s. He also worked with Professor J.C. McDaniel from the Unniversity of Illinois whom is responsible for selecting ‘John Rick’ and ‘Florence’ (5). Over the course of 20+ years Claypool evaluated over 2,000 trees and kept extensive orchard records describing the characteristics of each tree in his breeding project. As Claypool’s health declined in the early 1990’s various members of the Indiana Nut Growers Association decided to carry on his work (1); one of those individuals was Jerry Lehman, who has a 60-acre orchard in Terra Haute, IN. He has been working with persimmons there ever since and has a large repository containing some of the most diverse American persimmon genetics in the world. The breeding aims today remain largely the same as Claypool’s original criteria (1):
1.Reduce the long ripening period
2.Improve fruit size
3.Calyx holding to fruit when dropping from the tree
4.Increase the already wonderful flavor
5.Skin tough enough to hold fruit when it strikes ground
6.Better the color of skin or attractiveness
7.Reduce seed numbers
8.Eliminate black spots in fruit flesh
9.Improve pulp color & longevity when frozen
Out of all the above criteria the first point seems to be the most important for extending the range and viability of American persimmons as a crop in the Midwest. Brix testing should also be done to determine peak ripeness; in the case of ‘Prok’ we’ve seen and tasted samples that look ripe, feel ripe, lack any astringency, but taste bland and borderline insipid. Insufficient heat units may inhibit certain cultivars from developing their full sugar content. Another goal is to find and identify more individuals that exhibit self fruitfulness. My primary focus is to plant as many cultivars as possible to trial for the above criteria. The hope is to determine which of the existing cultivars are most likely to succeed under a short season.
My persimmon plantings are all in their adolescence and haven’t begun to bear. However, I am affiliated with a network of individuals around the state who are growing persimmons; many of the varietal images below come from those orchards. Through the Michigan Nut Growers Association we’ve established joint efforts to assess a wide range of cultivars over the next decade. This process will become increasingly sophisticated and systematic in our approach. In 2011/12 I planted ‘Szukis’, ‘Yates’,’Prok’, ‘Ennis Seedless’, ‘Sugar Bear’, and the kaki X virginiana variety, ‘Rosseyanka’. In the spring of 2013 I received several cultivars of scionwood from Jerry Lehman which were grafted onto seedling understock with around an 80% success rate. Those varieties are as follows:
1. “Story of James Claypool.” http://www.nutgrowers.org/persimmon.htm. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.
2. “Michigan Nut Growers Association.” Www.michigannutgrowers.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.
3. “Persimmon Pudding.” Ed to Growing, Education, A: Dedicatnd Use of Diospyros Virginiana L., the Common, or American Persimmon. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.
4. “Exotické Rostliny, Zdeněk Černoch, Větřkovice U Vítkova.” Diospyros Virginiana. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2014.
5. Reich, Lee, and Lee Reich. Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. Portland: Timber, 2004. Print.