Crunchy, juicy and packed with natural sugars, persimmons appeal to the sweet-toothed among us. As they ripen in early winter, when there’s not much other fresh fruit around, they have the added bonus of filling the fruit bowl at a handy time for home orchardists.
Persimmons are good-looking fruit, with deep-orange skin, and the trees are gorgeous as well. The glossy, tropicallooking leaves are shiny green in summer, but turn fiery orange and red, even deepening to burgundy and purple, in autumn. Some trees drop their leaves while the bright, round fruit are still attached to the branches – a beautiful sight. Even when bare, the branches of persimmon trees form an elegant framework.
Given all that, it’s maybe surprising they’re not more commonly grown in New Zealand. The trees are certainly not cheap, as they are apparently not easy to graft, but a mature tree bears 20-40kg of fruit, so it’s a worthwhile investment if you’ve got a sunny spot or a warm wall where it can flourish.
If you have the space in which to allow them to form their own shape, persimmon trees have an attractive drooping habit with a manageable maximum height of about 3m. Because of this, they can work well as a specimen tree on a lawn, and due to their many seasons of visual interest, they can also make a good focal point in a courtyard. What’s more, they can be trained or espaliered to grow against a sunny fence or wall, which gives them the benefit of being a great city tree as well.
The place (in my limited travels) where I’ve seen the most persimmons thriving is Melbourne. It’s full of great specimens, from the Royal Botanic Gardens to the hipster garden cafes of urban Fitzroy. Closer to home, I’ve also seen them do well in Motueka, Bay of Plenty and Waikato.
They handle cold winters, but do best in areas with warm summer temperatures, as warmth is needed for the fruit to develop and ripen. This is where microclimates make a huge difference – the reflected warmth of a sunny wall will greatly aid a persimmon’s performance in cooler areas. The soft, somewhat brittle wood makes them easy to prune or tie against a wall.
Commercially grown persimmons are modern, round, sweet-fleshed hybrids that can be eaten while still crunchy. By contrast, the original Chinese and Japanese varieties (kaki) are quite a different fruit – longer and pointier in shape, incredibly astringent until ripe, then apparently melting into a taste sensation. Fruit are hung under the eaves of houses in winter until their moment of perfection when they can be sliced open and eaten with a spoon.
The late garden and food writer Virgil Evetts recommends letting even our crunchy, nonastringent persimmons go soft before eating – but says their flavour is but a shadow of their sharper-tasting cousins. “Although not grown on much of a commercial scale in New Zealand, the astringent variety ‘Hira Tanenashi’ is sometimes available at farmers’ markets, and from smaller fruit retailers. These are well worth searching out, either for eating ‘fresh’ as described above or drying to make the luxurious Japanese sweetmeat – hoshigaki. Although essentially just a peeled and dried (traditionally by way of icy winter winds) astringent persimmon, hoshigaki are fudgy, fragrant and unbelievably sweet, a bit like a date crossed with an apricot. Throughout the drying process the fruit are rubbed and massaged by hand, to help break down the astringency and tenderise the flesh.”
In my kitchen, persimmons make a tasty addition to salads or platters. The crunchy texture is welcome in salads with soft, watery winter greens like spinach or miner’s lettuce, while the sweetness works well on a platter with walnuts and salty blue cheese or creamy camembert.
What you need to know
When to plant
Container-grown trees can be planted at any time, but the best time is probably while trees are dormant over winter.
Where to plant
Persimmon trees have a tap root so they don’t like heavy clay, instead preferring well-drained soil. Choose the place carefully as they won’t enjoy shifting. Sun is important, and shelter from strong wind is good as they are prone to snapping. Persimmon trees are late to flower, so frost isn’t usually an issue.
Give them some elbow room – persimmons are often grown as a specimen tree on a lawn, in order to show off their graceful drooping structure. They can alternatively be formed into a hedge or espaliered against a fence or wall (which will help support their brittle branches).
Pinch out the centre of new trees to encourage a closer branching habit – long, leggy branches are more likely to snap. Fruit is borne on new wood formed on terminal buds of last year’s growth, so pruning the whole tree back hard will mean losing a year’s fruiting. Instead, prune half the branches hard each year to keep trees a manageable size.
Time to maturity
Six years before fruiting is not uncommon.
Where to buy
Mitre 10 and Mitre 10 MEGA garden centres nationwide.