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Persimmon, fruit that feigns tomato

By Our Agriculture Correspondent

PERSIMMON (DIOSPYROS kaki) belonging to the family Ebenaceae, is a choice fruit of the sub-tropics and temperate regions. Oriental persimmon is a native of China, and it spread to Korea and Japan several years ago.

It is regarded as the national fruit of Japan, and several improved cultivars (varieties) have been developed there. In India, it was introduced by European settlers in the early part of last century. Now it is confined to small pockets as home trees or in orchards in Jammu and Kashmir, Coonoor in Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh and hilly tracts of Uttar Pradesh and in northeastern India.

This choice fruit, however, has been cultivated on a commercial scale due to several problems associated with the growing of the right type of varieties and poor fruit setting and heavy dropping of young fruits, according to Mr. J. Balasubramanian, a horticultural consultant at Ooty in Tamil Nadu. Persimmon does best in areas that have moderate winters and relatively mild summers. It is essentially a monoecious tree that grows up to 8 metres in height.

Being a deciduous tree, it sheds all leaves and enters a rest period to complete its dormancy in the middle of February under Indian conditions. This multi-trunked or single-stemmed tree is a handsome ornamental with drooping leaves and branches that give it a languid, rather tropical appearance.

Persimmon fruits, which strikingly resemble tomatoes, can be classified into two general categories: those that bear astringent fruit until they are soft and ripe and those that bear non-astringent fruits. Within each of these categories, there are cultivars whose fruits are influenced by pollination (pollination-variant) and cultivars whose fruits are unaffected by pollination (pollination-constant).

Actually, it is the seeds, not pollination per se, that influences the fruit. An astringent cultivar must be jelly soft before it is fit to eat, and as such cultivars are best adapted to cooler regions where persimmons can be grown.

The flesh colour of pollination-constant astringent cultivars is not influenced by pollination. Pollination-variant astringent cultivars have dark flesh around the seeds when pollinated. A non-astringent persimmon can be eaten when it is crisp as an apple. These cultivars need hot summers, and fruit might retain some astringency when grown in cooler regions.

Pollination-constant non-astringent (PCNA) persimmons are always edible when still firm, and pollination-variant non-astringent (PVNA) fruits are edible when firm only if they have been pollinated, according to Balasubramanian.

The shape, size and colour of the fruits vary with the varieties. In India, the astringent variety Hachiya is growing in the hilly regions. The fruits are deep orange-red with glossy skin. The flesh is deep yellow and sweet when ripe. Ripe persimmons are delicious.

The flesh is sweet and delicate. The fruits are ripened by keeping them with other ripening fruits or by treating them with ripening agents. Other astringent varieties such as Fuyu, Jiro and Hyakuma are also grown in some parts of India.

The main method of propagation is through whip grafting. Winter planting in January-February is considered ideal for Indian conditions. The grafts are planted in well-prepared and manured pits. The trees should be pruned and trained in the early stages to develop a framework of strong branches.

Regular watering, especially during summer, is a must. The trees start bearing 4 to 5 years after planting. On an average a full grown tree yields about 50 kg fruits per year. Fruits are harvested when they turn yellow to red, but are still firm.

The fruits are clipped from the tree using shears keeping the calyx in tact. Fruits around mature in mid-September, and they should be wrapped individually in paper and packed in single layer crate.

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