Petite, Attractive and Delicious: the Persimmon in South Florida

Sunday, October 23, 2011

BY RICHARD J. CAMPBELL



As published in the Miami Herald.

When we think of gardening in South Florida, the persimmon is probably not what comes to mind. But, perhaps it should be. As long as one pays close attention to variety selection and the source, the persimmon can be a rewarding home garden choice even in a South Florida faced with global climate change.

                                                                                                 

The persimmon is native to China and there are hundreds of varieties grown around the world. These varieties are seasonal arrivals in our grocery stores and are a welcome addition. However, for much of the year persimmons are no where to be seen and many of us long to fill the void left by the persimmon-less grocery store shelf. Let me introduce you to the one persimmon that can fulfill your needs, the ‘Triumph’.

 

Most quality persimmons have the need for cool weather in order to grow, flower and fruit properly. Here in South Florida we have very little of what the standard persimmon variety needs. Over the years persimmon trees have been offered for sale to our north and even here in South Florida, but they were typically ill-suited for our conditions. If you were unfortunate enough to have purchased and planted one of these major commercial persimmon varieties in your back yard you may understandably be disillusioned with this fruit. These standard persimmons will go through our winter and never bloom, nor grow again for that matter. The tree stays the same size and eventually dies during the heat and rains of the summer.

 

The ‘Triumph’ persimmon has a low requirement for cool weather. It is perfectly adapted to our conditions and will bloom, fruit and grow normally following even a warm South Florida winter. There are two other varieties, ‘Hudson’ and ‘Fuyu’ that can achieve success in South Florida. However, in the case of Hudson’ supplies are highly limited, making it a daunting task to locate one for your home garden. As for ‘Fuyu’, success is much more variable depending on the severity and duration of the winter and the source of your tree. ‘Triumph’, it would seem, is the gardener’s choice, but there is even more to this story.   

 

Grafted fruit trees are composed of a rootstock, that forms the root system of the tree and the variety, that forms the “tree” that you desire. In the case of persimmons for South Florida the only rootstock that is appropriate is our own native wild persimmon. The native persimmon rootstock will allow for the ‘Triumph’ to thrive in our soils and climates. Before purchasing your tree you should first confirm that it is indeed grafted on a native persimmon rootstock. This is why the source of your tree will be important. It is best to buy local and from a reputable nursery. You may be extremely disappointed with your choice otherwise.

 

Once you have the tree, you have many options for planting. The ‘Triumph’ persimmon will form a small, manageable tree that can tolerate light shade. The trees only grow once a year, following the end of the dry season. In years with Indian summers (extended warm weather) there may be some additional growth on younger trees. Their growth is not fast. The home gardener has to have a degree of patience. The trees should be heavily mulched and fertilizer applied once at the beginning of the rainy season with a granular formulation of 8-3-9. There is a tendency to over-fertilize in order to try and force growth from your tree. Do not do this. It will only damage and possibly kill the tree.

 

The tree will remain green and bushy until the end of the summer, and as we enter the fall the older leaves will turn pastel red and fall. The persimmon is one of the only trees here in <st1:place w:st="on">South Florida with fall color. All the leaves will drop during the winter. The tree will stand bare until new leaves push out following the cool, dry season.  Blooms will emerge at the time of the new flush in the spring. Flowers are cream-colored and fleshy and attract bees for pollination. Fruit set can de a problem in dry years. The fruit will develop during the summer and as the leaves begin to turn color in the fall, the fruit will turn a light yellow. The fruit ripen a few at a time over a month or more, turning to a deep orange on the tree. The ‘Triumph’ persimmon must be fully ripe to be eaten, otherwise the fruit is astringent, puckering the mouth and providing for a poor experience. Once fully ripe and soft to the touch the flesh is translucent and sweet. The flavor is excellent and most eat the fruit out-of-hand, but it can also be used for preserves and frozen for later consumption.

 

Pruning is 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. The 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.

 

There are few pests or diseases of the tree and it is also perfect for the low, wet areas of the home landscape. The tree may grow best in such areas. The only two drawbacks are that the native persimmon rootstock will produce root suckers and the fallen leaves will need racking. We may live near to the tropics, but the ‘Triumph’ persimmon is one temperate tree that we all should grow – and of course, eat.