Ebenaceae – The Persimmon Family

 

Diospyros digyna: Black Sapote, Chocolate Pudding Fruit, Chocolate Persimmon

Chocolate pudding that grows on a tree! That’s what a good fruit of this tropical persimmon species from Mexico tastes like. Known as chocolate pudding fruit or black sapote (Diospyros digyna). The green fruits above are not yet ripe; the cut fruits on the bottom are a full delicious ripeness. Photo by Dee Sem

Chocolate Pudding Fruit, At A Glance:

-Height: 25-50 feet
-Florida Zone: South, Central (protected)
-Origin: Mexico, Central America
-Season: Winter-Spring
-Propagation: Seed, Grafting

A good, well-ripened chocolate pudding fruit is a delicious treat: rich, sweet and creamy. It is indeed a bit like chocolate pudding — so soft you can eat it with a spoon.

The fruits are round and slightly flattened in shape, three to five inches in diameter, with greenish skin, and a four-lobed leafy calix around their stem that gives them away as a type of persimmon. You need to wait until the fruit is completely soft to eat it, at which point the skin turns a darker shade of green and will indent at the slightest touch. At this point the fruit looks to the uninitiated like it’s over-ripe and almost spoiling — but the appearance is deceiving, this is when it’s reaching the height of deliciousness. Grab a spoon, break that fruit open and dig in to the sweet succulence within! This is a great fruit for making smoothies. (There are a few large seeds within the fruit, which are easily removed or spat out.)

Chocolate pudding fruit (aka black sapote) is a persimmon native to Mexico that really does taste like a delicious, rich chocolate pudding. But there’s a trick to it: when the fruit looks good, it doesn’t taste good. You have to wait till they get really ugly, so raunchy-looking you’ll swear they’re spoiled, like the fruits in this photo – that’s when they taste REALLY good. Diospyros digyna

The fruit can be picked firm and will ripen off the plant, but as with any fruit, to do this successfully, you must not pick them too early. Fruits that have fully matured on the tree and are picked firm will ripen and soften in a few days into delicious pudding-like loveliness. Fruits picked too early, before they’re sufficiently mature, will still soften up, but they don’t reach anything like the full, rich flavor of a fruit that was left on the tree long enough to mature properly before it was picked. It can be tricky to know when the right time is to pick a fruit. To be fully sure, you can leave fruits on the tree until they start to ripen and soften, but you have to catch them at that moment, or they will and drop off the tree, and often then smash themselves into mush when they hit the ground.

Chocolate persimmon is native to Mexico and Central America. This a tropical species, so in Florida it grows best in the southern third of the peninsula and in immediate coastal areas of Central Florida, but I’ve heard reports of occasional trees fruiting in protected locations inland, in the Orlando area. The tree is not finicky about soil type — it grows equally well in the lime rock soils of Dade County, and the acidic sandy soils found in most other parts of Florida.

This species can grow into a large tree, reportedly sometimes reaching as tall as eighty feet high. In Florida, 40-50 foot tall chocolate persimmon trees are common. The dark, glossy green leaves are quite ornamental.

Reportedly, some chocolate pudding fruit trees are dioecious (have separate male and female trees), and some are monoecious (have male and female flowers on same tree). Also I’ve heard that trees which are female can set some fruit without pollination, but the unpollinated fruits are smaller and seedless, while pollination on the same trees results in larger fruits with seeds. For breeding purposes, it’s better to have monoecious plants, so any varieties that are self-pollinating would form an excellent base for a breeding program.

Chocolate persimmon is usually grown from seed, but some tropical fruit nurseries may have grafted trees of good varieties available. One named variety sometimes available is “Merida”, which sometimes also goes by the name “Reinecke”.

 

Diospyros discolor: Mabolo, Velvet Apple, Velvet Persimmon

Good varieties of velvet apple, or mabolo, have a pleasant, juicy flavor, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture. The skin is fuzzy, and in some varieties of this fruit the skin smells like cheese! Photo by Dee Sem (Diospyros discolor)

Mabolo is a persimmon species native to the Philippines, which has fruits about the size of an apple, with a distinctive fuzzy skin. The fruits are highly variable from tree to tree; poor varieties have a mealy texture, while good selections have a delicious, melt-in-your-mouth texture and pleasant, fruity flavor. Some people compare the flavor of a good mabolo to banana mixed with flowers and sometimes a hint of cheese flavor.

One distinctive characteristic of some forms of this species is the fruits smell strongly of cheese. This aroma is mainly confined to the fuzzy skin, and for people who don’t enjoy that smell, peeling the fruits gets rid of it. Some cultivars of mabolo seem to be lacking the cheese aroma altogether.

Good varieties of mabolo make a nice fruit breakfast, especially when chilled. Just slice the fruits in half, grab a spoon, and dig in. Photo by Dee Sem (Diospyros discolor)

 

Color, shape, and size vary considerably as well flavor – this is clearly a fruit in need of selection for superior forms.

Mabolo trees come in male and female, but reportedly, female trees on their own will still produce fruits, but  they will be seedless.

Mabolo trees are large, growing 50 feet (15 meters)  to as much as 100 (30 meters) tall. Reportedly, the trees grow and fruit well in many soil types, with little care.

Mabolo trees are tropical, suffering foliage burn at 28F (-2C).

People often peel mabolo fruits before eating, or cut them open and eat with a spoon.

 

 

Diospyros kaki: Asian Persimmon, Kaki

This is the flavor of autumn. Asian persimmon is truly a world-class fruit – and they taste like pumpkin spice!
Diospyros kaki

Asian Persimmon, At A Glance:
-Height: 10-25 feet
-Florida Zone: North, Central, South (some varieties unsuited to extreme South FL)
-Origin: China, Japan
-Season: Late summer, fall
-Propagation: Grafted, usually onto Diospyros virginiana rootstock in Florida

When people in Central and North Florida ask me what kind of fruit tree they can plant that’s easy to grow, handles Florida’s steamy summers and frosty winters, and will make lots of delicious fruit, my first answer is always the same: plant persimmon trees!

There are two species species of persimmon that do well in Central and North Florida, and throughout the neighboring southeastern states: Asian persimmon, Diospyros kaki, and the native American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana. Of the two, Asian persimmon is the one with the most general appeal.

Asian persimmon has had many centuries of breeding work, which has developed it into an outstanding fruit tree both for commercial operations and for the home owner who just wants one or two fruit trees for their yard.

Asian persimmons, sometimes called Chinese or Japanese persimmons, have the compact growth habit typical of an orchard tree, usually growing about ten or fifteen feet tall, occasionally up to twenty-five feet.

Fruits are two to three inches in diameter, in some varieties rounded and slightly flattened, in other varieties pointy and acorn-shaped.

A great way to enjoy the persimmon varieties that ripen to a soft pudding-like texture is to freeze them – the experience is like eating a fruity ice cream. (Asian persimmon, Diospyros kaki ‘Saijo’)

The most important thing for anyone to know about Asian persimmons is that each variety of this fruit falls into either one or the other of two categories: astringent and non-astringent. Astringent-variety persimmons need to be left to ripen until they are completely soft, feeling almost like a water balloon, before eating. At that point the flesh is deliciously sweet and soft, and can be slurped up like a sweet pudding. If a persimmon of one of these varieties is eaten too early, while still firm, it has an astringent “puckery” quality to the flesh that makes your mouth feel like it’s full of cotton. The astringency disappears completely when the fruit ripens to squishy softness.

Non-astringent varieties of Asian persimmons, on the other hand, can be eaten while still firm, at which point they have a sweet flavor and crisp texture, almost like an apple. If left to ripen further, non-astringent varieties will also soften into pudding-like texture.

Many persimmon connoisseurs think the finest persimmon flavor is to be had in an astringent variety that’s fully ripened, to the point that all astringency has disappeared and the flesh is squishy-soft deliciousness. But some people who grew up eating temperate-zone fruits find the unfamiliar squishy texture of an astringent-variety persimmon takes some getting used to. These newcomers to the exotic fruit scene tend to like non-astringent types of Asian persimmon immediately, due to the familiar apple-like crisp texture.

So non-astringent varieties would be the first choice for either a home owner or commercial grower who wants to plant a variety with the broadest possible appeal. Astringent varieties have a slightly smaller, but very devoted following.
Non-astringent varieties include: ‘Fuyu’, ‘Ichi-Ki-Kei-Jiro’, and ‘Izu’. Some particularly good astringent varieties include: ‘Saijo’, ‘Triumph’, ‘Sheng’, and ‘Hachiya’.

One particularly nice way to enjoy astringent-variety Asian persimmons is to eat them frozen. The soft flesh becomes almost like ice cream, and many people who don’t immediately like the soft texture of astringent varieties enjoy eating this way on a hot Florida day in September.  I happen to enjoy eating soft persimmons fresh, but I love them frozen even more – somehow it adds a whole new dimension to the experience. I also like the fact that it slows me down: I tend to slurp down a non-frozen soft persimmon in just a few seconds, but when the same fruit is frozen, I naturally eat it at a more relaxed pace, stretching out the enjoyable eating experience for much longer. Freezing persimmons is also a great way to make this seasonal fruit crop last for much of the year.

Both the Asian persimmon varieties in the picture are in the ‘astringent-until-deliciously-ripe’ category: the acorn-shaped ones are ‘Saijo’, and the flattened-tomato ones are ‘Great Wall.’

Asian persimmons thrive in all parts of the state, although in extreme South Florida, they can have some pest problems. When fully dormant in winter, Asian persimmon trees can handle temperatures down into the single digits Fahrenheit, typically surviving the coldest temperatures even a North Florida winter can throw at them. But very occasionally, an extended warm spell during winter can cause the trees to break dormancy too early, resulting in cold damage if a late freeze occurs.

Asian persimmon trees are usually propagated by grafting, and in Florida they are almost always grafted onto seedlings of the supremely well-adapted native persimmon, Diospyros virginiana. This combination works extremely well in our state, but it’s important to be aware that native persimmon sends up suckers from its root system. So if you buy and plant out Asian persimmon trees, at some point there will probably be sprouts emerging from the ground of native persimmon. Since these are random seedlings, not varieties selected for fruiting, it’s usually best to remove these as they emerge. But if one pops up in a suitable location, you could graft a good variety of either Asian or native persimmon onto it.

 

Diospyros texana, Texas persimmon, Chapote

Texas persimmon fruits are small and sweet, tasting a bit like a small version of Chocolate Pudding Fruit (described above). But this species can take considerable frost, potentially allowing cultivation of “chocolate pudding that grows on a tree” into areas outside the tropics. (Diospyros texana) Photo by Christin Saeka Keeley

Texas persimmon is a small, sweet, black-fleshed persimmon species native to northern Mexico and the southern US state of Texas. Little known outside its native region, this one reportedly tastes similar to Chocolate Pudding Fruit, aka Black Sapote.

In Texas, the fruits are reported to become the size of golf balls during rainy years, while being closer to marble sized in most years (this is a semi-arid climate region). Presumably, irrigation or growing Texas persimmons in a rainier climate like Florida could result in regular crops of larger fruit.

Texas persimmons grow as small, multi-trunked trees, typically about ten feet (3 meters) tall, but occasionally reaching 40 feet (12 meters) high. In the northern part of their range they are deciduous, dropping their leaves in winter, while in the southern part of their range the trees are evergreen. The trees are dioecious, meaning they come as separate male and female trees, so it’s necessary to have both genders of trees in order to get fruit.

I can’t find any reference to any superior varieties of Texas persimmon that have been named and propagated  as fruit trees. If you’re a fruit enthusiast who lives within the native range of this species, you can change this: just get out during the fruiting season of Texas persimmon (August, I’ve heard), and sample fruits from lots and lots of Texas persimmons. If you find any that make better/larger fruits, you can propagate and distribute them yourself, or announce on a forum like tropicalfruitforum.com  what you’ve found. Someone will be happy to get budwood twigs from you, and they can make sure the superior form(s) get widely distributed.

 

Diospyros virginiana: American Persimmon

The supremely delicious ‘Turkey Lake’ American persimmon. Diospyros virginaiana

American Persimmon, At A Glance:
-Height: 15-50 feet
-Florida Zone: North, Central, South
-Origin: South-East US
-Season: Fall
-Propagation: Graft, Root suckers, root cuttings

American persimmon is a native treasure of a fruit tree, but it’s a treasure that’s seriously under-appreciated in Florida. The trees are tough and resilient, growing extremely well here in Florida with very little care, and if you plant a selected variety, it will effortlessly reward you with delicious super-sweet persimmons every autumn. To me, the taste of a good American persimmon, with its sugary date-like flavor with a hint of pumpkin spice, is the very essence of fall.

Our native persimmon is a species with tremendous potential as a tree crop for Florida and the Southeast, but so far, very little effort has been made to make this species realize this great potential for this area. Virtually no nurseries in Florida offer elite selected varieties of American persimmon, and almost all the work that has been done on selecting and breeding this species has been in the northern part of the tree’s range, in the central and upper Midwestern states. What little information is readily available about growing American persimmons in Florida is often misleading or even completely inaccurate, apparently due to the lack of knowledge by writers about this species. I intend to try to fill that information gap about American persimmon in Florida with this website, and to try to push for more interest and development of this remarkable fruit tree.

American persimmon trees can be found wild throughout Florida, growing in a remarkable variety of conditions. Canoeing along rivers in Florida, I’ve looked up and seen native persimmon trees dangling fruits over the water, their trunks growing so close to the water’s edge that much of their root system must be permanently submerged in water-logged muck. And I’ve also seen the trees growing on sandy, dry hill tops, where the soil was so poor there was barely even any grass managing to barely survive, but here and there were small native persimmon trees, holding their own. This is a very adaptable fruit tree.

Good varieties of American persimmon, like these “Turkey Lake” fruits, develop their full sweetness once the fruit is completely soft and squishy. Contrary to popular belief, frost is not necessary for these fruits to sweeten and lose their astringency, only time.

Much of the challenge of dealing with American persimmon comes from the fact that it is a wild tree with lots of quirks, a species which has never been subject to extensive breeding or selection efforts.

The first quirk of this species is that the fruits only become edible at the point that they’ve ripened so completely that they’ve become soft and squishy. At this point of full ripeness, the fruits are completely delicious, but before that point, while the fruits are still firm, they have an astringent quality which produces an unpleasant, puckery sensation in the mouth. Unaware of this fact, many would-be eaters of American persimmon who’ve ever tasted the fruits rapidly concluded that the fruits are unfit for consumption. If only they’d known to wait for the persimmons to soften completely, they would have had a completely different experience with this wonderful fruit! Unlike Asian persimmons, which have both astringent and non-astringent varieties, there are no non-astringent varieties of American persimmon — the only way to enjoy this fruit is to slurp up the sweet, soft, squishy flesh of fully mature fruits.

One bit of misinformation you’ll often read is the claim that American persimmon fruits need frost to lose their astringency. This is completely false; fruits of this species in Florida regularly ripen to sweet deliciousness with no remaining trace of astringency during October, long before the temperature has even dipped below fifty degrees Fahrenheit.

The next issue with the species is that unlike many fruit trees, American persimmon comes in separate male and female trees. The technical term for this is that it’s dioecious (pronounced “die-EE-shus”), as opposed to monoecious plants (pronounced “mon-EE-shus”), in which each plant is both male and female. The practical consequence of this is that for any wild persimmon trees you find, or if you plant a batch of seedling trees, only half will ever make fruit; the other half of them are fruit-less male trees. And the female trees may need to have a male tree nearby to pollinate them (except some varieties of “female” trees make some male flowers, and can be self pollinating).

Another quirk of American persimmon is that even among the female, fruit-bearing trees, there is tremendous variability in fruit quality from tree to tree. The best varieties make two-inch diameter, lusciously sweet fruits which at maturity have no trace of astringency. The worst varieties make half-inch diameter, seedy fruits, which never seem to completely lose their astringency.

With all this genetic variation available to us, we need to comb through the state’s wild trees, locating the best varieties, propagating them and distributing them. To my knowledge only two varieties of American persimmon have ever been selected and propagated from wild trees in Florida. One of them is the variety distributed by Just Fruits and Exotics nursery near Tallahassee. They just call it ‘Female American Persimmon’, and they say it was found wild in Wakulla County, and it “produces heavily and has large fruit size”. I haven’t seen the trees or fruits, so I can’t say how this variety compares to other American persimmons. They have grafted trees of this selection available for sale.

The other variety from Florida is one that I found originally growing wild in Orlando, a variety which I named ‘Turkey Lake’. I have propagated and distributed this clone on a very small scale, and it is definitely far superior to the average wild persimmons in Florida. I hope to have grafted ‘Turkey Lake’ persimmon plants available for purchase in the future. For the moment, if you want to sample fruit of this variety or get budwood for grafting, there are two places where ‘Turkey Lake’ persimmon is in a public place. The original clone was at Bill Frederick Park, 3401 Hiawassee Road, Orlando, at disc golf station number twelve. Admission to the park is $4 per car, or $2 if it’s just the driver. (I haven’t been there in many years, so hopefully the trees are still there.) There’s also a ‘Turkey Lake’ persimmon that I planted in a community garden in Gainesville, at the corner of NW 10th Ave and NW 4th St; the tree is at the southwest corner of this intersection.

There are undoubtedly many other wild American persimmon trees in Florida that are equal to or superior to these two selections. We need to locate, evaluate, and propagate them!

Outside of Florida, in the northern part of the range of American persimmon, a small network of growers has worked for decades to select and breed good varieties of American persimmon. A quick look at the state of these efforts is here. These efforts have produced a number of excellent selections, which reliably make large, tasty persimmons every year. An extensive list of these selections is here.

Turkey Lake persimmon on left, compared to three randomly chosen, typical wild clones of American persimmon.

How well will these elite selections of American persimmon from the northern part of its range perform in Florida? I don’t know. I’ve never heard of anyone attempting to grow them here. I suspect they would probably grow well here, but we won’t know until someone tries. If you want to try, you can get plants from the outstanding Nolin River Nut Nursery. Also, Edible Landscaping Nursery in Virginia has some improved selections of American persimmon available for sale as grafted trees.

One issue that may or may not be a problem in growing northern selections is that American persimmon trees from the northern part of their range have 90 chromosomes, trees from the southern part have 60 chromosomes, and trees from some parts of peninsular Florida reportedly have just 30 chromosomes. It may be necessary to have a male tree of a compatible chromosome nearby to get fruit from some varieties. Somebody, please try planting out a bunch of these varieties in Florida, and report on how they do for you!

The quirkyness of American persimmons extends to how they are propagated. This species won’t propagate from cuttings or air layers, so it is most often multiplied by grafting onto small seedling persimmons. This works well, and is a time-tested way to multiply a good persimmon variety into lots of daughter trees with the same genetics.

But one of those quirks of American persimmons is that after a tree has been growing for a number of years, it tends to send up root suckers, which can eventually grow into full-sized persimmon trees in their own right. If the original tree you planted was grafted, then any root suckers that pop up are just clones of the random seedling that was used for a root stock, and the suckers can be removed. But if you find an exceptional wild American persimmon tree, it will be growing on its own roots, and likely has already sent up root suckers that have grown into full-sized trees.

So you’ll often find wild American persimmon trees growing in a cluster of trees, all with identical fruit. It’s often possible to go to the edge of the patch and find root suckers that are small enough that they can be dug and transplanted. This results in an own-root persimmon tree of that good variety, which has the potential to grow into not just a single tree of that good variety, but a whole grove of them, via root-suckering. It’s also supposed to be possible to propagate this species by root cuttings. My very limited attempt at one point to try this was unsuccessful, but I’d like to try it again, as it offers the potential to produce large numbers of own-root plants of a good variety of persimmon.