Find out how to grow or forage American persimmons and grow Japanese persimmons (the larger-fruited cousin of American persimmons) — plus important differences between the two species. Persimmons are a fairly easy-to-grow fruit tree that’s ideal for gardens, edible landscapes, food forests, and market farmers alike.
My parents sometimes reflect in amazement that I made it through childhood without a single broken bone. Be assured it wasn’t for lack of effort.
They encouraged my and my brother’s foraging adventures, which helped in our physical and emotional development. We got exercise, lessons in teamwork, ecological education, and (occasionally) important lessons in pushing our physical risk tolerance to its limits.
Growing up in South Carolina, there was always a wild persimmon tree somewhere within walking distance — and wild American persimmons were my favorite fall fruit.
Each fall, I’d scurry up nearby American persimmon trees faster than a squirrel, shaking each branch so the ripe fruit could fall to the ground for collecting. One day, while out for a solo persimmon foraging adventure at our family lake house, I decided I could go just a little farther up a persimmon tree to get some additional fruit to shake loose…
My memory is still a little hazy, but I remember hearing the sharp snap of the branch I’d chosen as my foot anchor. Seconds later, I crashed chest-first to the ground in a rain of branches, twigs, and ripe persimmons. It was the first time I’d ever had the breath knocked out of me, and I was pretty sure I was going to die.
By the time I made it home, I’d fully recovered my ability to breathe but had some good scratches (and future scars) to memorialize my adventure. Of course, I went back and collected the fallen persimmons.
No broken bones, a basket of delicious fruit, and an important tree climbing lesson (always have a firm hand grip on a second branch before putting all your weight on a first branch). Victory.
Introduction to American persimmons
In case you’ve never seen or eaten them before, American persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are pingpong ball-sized, deep orange-colored fruit (technically globular berries). American persimmon trees can be grown from Ag Zones 4-9 and are extremely cold-hardy, surviving down to -25°F.
American persimmons were treasured by Native Americans and European settlers who lived in areas where the trees grow, predominantly in the southeast. You’ll probably never see them in a grocery store due to their short shelf life and mushy texture when fully ripened.
When are wild American persimmons ripe?
The trickiest thing about American persimmons is figuring out when they’re ripe. And, no, American persimmons (ripe or unripe) are NOT poisonous.
However, they generally (not always) taste terrible BEFORE a frost – so bitter and puckery they make it feel like your mouth is turning inside out. However, when fully ripened, American persimmons taste sweeter and more delicious than any candy, with hints of fruity caramel.
This isn’t always the case though. Since there is so much genetic diversity between wild American persimmon trees, one tree might produce sweet delicious fruit before a frost, and another might not lose its bitter pucker (caused by tannins) until after a frost.
To a human mind striving for pattern detection, this variability can be maddening. The best course of action is to cultivate a knowledge of particular wild trees near you: in the forest near your house, on your favorite hiking trails, etc.
American persimmon trees are very easy to identify in the fall since their orange fruit is quite conspicuous after the tree’s leaves have fallen. You’ll also see the ripe mushy fruit on the ground under the tree.
It shouldn’t take you much time to determine when the fruit on a particular persimmon tree is ripe: before or after a frost. Once you know, you can reliably go to the same tree year after year at the same time to enjoy nature’s bounty.
Growing bred varieties of American persimmons
If you’d prefer to grow American persimmons rather than forage them, you’re in luck. Breeders have developed excellent American persimmon cultivars with large fruit and delicious flavor — some of which ripens before frost.
Top-rated American persimmon cultivars (purchased as 2-3 year old grafted trees) include:
- Early Golden (large fruited, early ripener)
- Yates (large fruited, early ripener)
- Geneva Red
- Morris Burton
- John Rick
- Ennis (a seedless variety, if you don’t care for seeds)
You can also grow American persimmons via seed very inexpensively. However, buying and planting bred persimmon saplings means you’ll: a) get fruit sooner, and b) know you can expect excellent fruit quality.
It can take up to 9 years (from seed) to get your first ripe American persimmon fruit, so a 2-3 year old sapling gives you a head start.
Two other American persimmon tree considerations:
1. Male persimmon tree
If you don’t have wild American persimmon trees growing within flying distance of pollinators (a mile or so), it’s generally a good idea to plant a male persimmon tree nearby to guarantee good fruit production. You can also graft a branch of a male tree on to one of your female trees to accomplish the same aim without taking up additional space.
Some American persimmon cultivars have also been bred to be self-pollinating, so be mindful of these traits/needs when choosing varieties.
If buying cultivated persimmon varieties, make sure you pay attention to the size of the tree. Some American persimmon trees can grow gigantic — up to 80′ tall — although they might not accomplish this feat in your lifetime. Smaller/dwarf varieties make harvest easier.
Japanese persimmons versus American persimmons
“Japanese” persimmon (Diospyros kaki) is somewhat of a misnomer, since Diospyros kaki trees are also native to other areas of east Asia outside of Japan. That’s why Japanese persimmons are also commonly called Asian persimmons, oriental persimmons, or simply kaki fruit.
I remember seeing my first Japanese persimmon in a grocery store when I was a kid. It seemed like something from a dream: a persimmon the size of a softball? There’s a 90% chance I wouldn’t have survived childhood if something so enticing had graced the native trees in our forests.
My parents bought a few fruit and I also remember being disappointed in their flavor. It was good, but not great. Very sweet, but not nearly as rich or complex as the American persimmons I was accustomed to.
Today I know that this lack of flavor isn’t true of ALL Japanese persimmon varieties — and the various stages of ripeness can also change the fruit’s flavor profile.
Different cultivars of Japanese persimmon
Japanese persimmons can broadly be broken into two categories based on their flavor:
- Astringent Japanese persimmons – Until perfectly ripened, astringent varieties have the same bitter-puckery quality of unripe American persimmons. Once the tannins break down due to ripening and cold weather, they offer exquisite, nuanced flavor on par with the best American persimmons.
- Non-astringent Japanese persimmons – Non-astringent Japanese persimmons have been bred to have much lower tannin content. That means they don’t have a puckery flavor even before fully ripe. You can even eat some varieties (such as ‘Fuyu’) when they’re still crunchy, like an apple, so long as they’ve turned orange. The downside is that the flavor isn’t generally as rich or nuanced as astringent Japanese persimmons or American persimmons.
The two Japanese persimmon varieties we have in our food forest are dwarf cultivars of ‘Fuyu‘ and ‘Ichi Ki Kei Jiro’. Each tree is only 10 years old.
Thus far, our Ichi persimmon seems to produce larger fruit, but our Fuyu seems to produce more fruit. Our Fuyu has a more elegant, weeping growth habit whereas our Ichi has a more traditional upright growth habit.
Both are excellent producers that feature large flavorful fruit. The flavor differences between the two are so subtle that we doubt most people could tell the difference in a blind taste test.
We plan to add 1-2 astringent Japanese persimmon trees to our small food forest in years to come – one of them will likely be a ‘Hachiya’.
Important differences: Japanese persimmons vs American persimmons
If you’re trying to decide whether to grow Japanese or American persimmon trees (or both), there are some important differences between the two species to consider.
A deeper look at the differences between Japanese persimmons vs American persimmons from the above graphic:
1. Cold hardiness
American persimmons are much more cold hardy than Japanese persimmons. If you live in a colder, northern climate region, you may only be able to grow American persimmons.
- American persimmons hardiness zones (Ag zones) 4-9 / Hardy down to -25°F
- Japanese persimmons hardiness zones 6-9 / Hardy down to 10°F
2. Years to fruit
- According to University of Kentucky Extension, American persimmon trees grown from seed can begin bearing fruit anywhere between year 4-9. If you purchase a grafted American persimmon sapling from a nursery, you may get your first fruit within 2-3 years.
- Japanese persimmons bear fruit in ~7 years from seed. Here also, a grafted sapling may bear fruit in 2-3 years.
3. Mature tree size
American persimmon trees can grow much larger than Japanese persimmons, however there is wide variability in mature height between bred cultivars of both species. For gardeners/orchardists, it makes sense to get smaller varieties to make harvesting easier.
- American persimmons can reach up to 80 feet tall. (The largest known American persimmon tree is 87 feet tall.)
- Japanese persimmons can reach up to 30 feet tall.
4. Yield (pound per tree)
Japanese persimmon trees produce a higher yield per tree than American persimmons:
- Mature bred varieties of American persimmon trees can yield up to 100 pounds of fruit per year.
- A large mature Japanese persimmon tree can produce up to 550 pounds of fruit per year. (source: Purdue University Dept of Horticulture)
5. Fruit size
Japanese persimmons are much larger than American persimmons. However, size isn’t everything – a perfectly ripe American persimmon tastes better than most Japanese persimmons, in my opinion. (The Tyrant disagrees, as she prefers Japanese persimmons.)
- American persimmons weigh about 1 ounce each.
- Japanese persimmons weigh about 6 ounces each. The average per fruit weight of our Fuyu persimmons is 5.96 ounces. The average per fruit weight of our Ichi Ki Kei Jiro is 6.56 ounces.
If you only have room for one tree, you’re probably better off getting a Japanese persimmon…
- American persimmons typically are NOT self-pollinating, although some bred varieties are. If you buy a single bred American persimmon tree, it’s likely to be a female, which means pollination will require either: 1) a nearby wild persimmon, 2) a male tree planted nearby, 3) a branch from a male tree to be grafted on to your female tree.
- Japanese persimmons are often self-pollinating, although it’s suggested to have at least two trees to get increase fruit production.
Can American and Japanese persimmons cross-pollinate? Unfortunately not.
We’d love to cross our ‘Ichi’ Japanese persimmon with a wild American persimmon to create a ‘Scratchy’ cultivar, but we’ll have to find another way to bring that dream to reality.
- American persimmons trees can live to be hundreds of years old. Interestingly, American persimmon heartwood is considered a true ebony and doesn’t fully develop until the tree reaches about 100 years old.
- Japanese persimmon trees can live between 30-75 years.
- American persimmons (with the exception of one seedless cultivar) are relatively large compared to Japanese persimmon seeds. Fruit does produce viable seeds that can be used to grow new persimmon trees, although the result may be hybrid crosses.
- Japanese persimmons produce very small seeds relative to the size of their fruit and relative to the seeds of American persimmons. Japanese persimmon seeds can also be grown, but they’re unlikely to grow true to the parent plant.
9. Pest and disease resistance
Both Japanese and American persimmons are extremely pest and disease-resistant.
The only pests that we hear of bothering persimmons are squirrels and deer, who will eat the ripe fruit off the trees (or ground) in the fall. One reason you might consider harvesting your Japanese persimmons before they’re fully ripe on the tree is not to give your local critters an opportunity to eat them first.
When do you pick Japanese persimmons for best flavor?
Something we wondered about before we had experience: when do you pick Japanese persimmons for ideal flavor? We’ve read conflicting accounts on the internet, but now we have a chance to do small-scale experiments with fruit from our own trees.
For instance, one thing we’ve read online is that Japanese persimmons taste best after a frost (true) but a deep freeze lower than about 25°F will ruin the fruit quality (not true). Here’s what we’ve found with fruit from our two Japanese persimmon cultivars (Fuyu and Ichi Ki Kei Jiro):
- Both taste very good once the fruit turns fully orange — even before a frost and even before they soften.
- Both taste BETTER after a frost and when they start to soften (sweeter, richer, and more flavorful).
- Neither will soften on the tree immediately after a frost or a freeze. The quickest way to get them to soften is to remove them from the tree and store them indoors after a frost/freeze. For longer storage (weeks or months) store them at room temp. For faster softening, store them in your fridge, and they’ll start softening within a week. Or for immediate softening, put them in your freezer for one night, thaw them, and eat them within a day.
- This year, we’ve left an “experimental persimmon” on both our trees to see how the weather and time duration impacts the fruit texture. We’ve already had two nights where temps stayed below the mid-20s for most of the night. Neither fruit has significantly softened – even two weeks later. It seems that staying attached to the tree somehow moderates the sugar/water flow in such a way as to inhibit fruit freeze damage/ripening. Hopefully, no squirrels eat our experimental persimmons before we can conclude our experiment!
Japanese persimmon growing tip: lots of nutrition
For the most part, you can grow, prune, and maintain Japanese persimmon trees like most other fruit trees. However, we discovered one important difference last year when we had almost all of our persimmon fruit drop late in the summer.
Yes, it was scorching hot. Yes, there was another drought in effect. (Weird weather is the new normal.) However, persimmon trees are relatively drought-tolerant and we were irrigating our plants every 10-14 days, so lack of water didn’t seem to be the culprit.
Another symptom: the leaves were starting to curl and yellow indicating a nutrient deficiency. All we’d done up to that point for nutrition was keep the ground heavily mulched (we didn’t have enough compost or worm castings to put any under our persimmons).
Right before bud break this spring, The Tyrant decided she wasn’t going to risk losing fruit this year, so she bought organic fertilizer spikes for fruit trees. We put five spikes in a circle around each tree at the edges of the limb reach (to correspond with root reach) and crossed our fingers…
Despite another extreme late summer drought, our trees produced and held on to the vast majority of their fruit.
Bottom line: Japanese persimmons require a substantial amount of nutrition in order to produce heavy yields of their large-sized fruit. If we’d had a bunch of worm castings or quality compost available, perhaps that would have been adequate, but fertilizer spikes were a good, affordable alternative.
Ready to grow your own persimmons?
Got all the information you need to forage or grow American persimmons? Ready to grow astringent or non-astringent persimmons in your garden, homestead, or farm? Hope so!
Persimmons are one amazingly delicious and nutritious fruit and we’d love to see more trees around. Just be careful climbing up a native persimmon tree so you don’t end up crashing to the ground like kid me!
Other fruity and nutty gardening articles you might enjoy:
- The complete guide to growing elderberry trees
- Why and how to grow chestnuts
- How to select and use edible roses in your garden
- How to grow pawpaw trees, America’s largest native fruit
- How to grow and eat prickly pear cactuses
- How to find, ID, grow, and eat native passionfruit (Passiflora incarnata)
- How to use American beautyberries as food and mosquito repellent