My fascination with persimmons began on a chilly December morning two years ago when Ignacio Sanchez, a farmer in the Central Valley, took me to the yard of a Japanese neighbor. He pointed out a tree, bare of leaves, with small, round, bright orange fruits blazing against the azure sky. When he cut one open, it had speckled brown flesh that was juicy and sweet, with an intriguing cinnamon flavor.
"It's a Maru persimmon," Sanchez said. "That's the best kind. Lots of Japanese have them in their yards--but you can't find them anywhere else."
Most Southern Californians know about the two main types of persimmon--the flat, crunchy Fuyu and the acorn-shaped Hachiya, which is edible only when ripe and soft. But there are hundreds of other varieties. Furthermore, the persimmon has the power to command an almost mystical devotion. In Japan, it enjoys much the same cultural significance as the apple does in ours.
This reverence is not limited to Japan. In Westwood, Art Schroeder, professor emeritus of subtropical horticulture at UCLA, supervised a comprehensive collection of persimmon trees until they were cut down in 1960 to make way for the UCLA Medical Center.
At his home in Santa Monica's Rustic Canyon, he still has a file of agricultural bulletins and treatises dating back to the 1910s and 1920s, many written in Japanese, and accompanied by exquisitely detailed drawings and handwritten translations--labors of love from boosters and philosophers of the persimmon.
From these fragile, yellowing pages and faded images emerged a vision of the glory years of California persimmons in the 1920s, when growers offered dozens of rare and fine varieties, and devotees immersed themselves in esoteric lore.
Could there be even a faint echo of those riches in today's California? Were there more Marus waiting to be discovered?
To find out, I set off on a two-week, 3,000-mile tour of the state's persimmon producers, both commercial and unconventional.
The first stop was at the Valley Center orchard of Jim Bathgate, president of the California Fuyu Growers Assn. His family began growing Hachiyas in San Juan Capistrano in the 1920s; after selling the land to developers in the 1970s, he moved to his current location, 35 miles north of San Diego, where he grows three acres of Fuyus.
"What got this area going in the mid-'70s was the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people, who were more familiar with Fuyus than Hachiyas," said Bathgate, threading his way through a jungle of trees, their limbs sagging to the ground with golden fruit. In season, which reaches its peak in November and early December, he said, many Asians drive to the area to pick their own Fuyus.
It turns out, however, that almost none of these fruits are actually of the true Fuyu variety. Though it is still the most popular variety in Japan, where it originated around 1900, the true Fuyu, Bathgate explained, is incompatible with the rootstock preferred by American nurseries. So they offer the Jiro, which is similar but flatter and squarer, and has faint lines running down the middle of the sides.
"The true Fuyu has a slightly softer texture, but it's less sweet," said Bathgate. "I don't consider it a better fruit."
For marketing to the public, the Fuyu name now stands generically for all similar varieties of non-astringent persimmons--so when you buy fruits marketed as Fuyus, they're probably really Jiros.
At an early stage of ripeness, Fuyus are pale yellow and crunchy-hard, like a firm apple, with a mild pumpkin flavor. Later they turn deep orange and are softer, juicier and sweeter. Most are seedless, though a few seeds can sometimes be found.
One notable variation on the theme is the Giant Fuyu, a large, round, extra-sweet variety that's mostly sold at farmers markets because it doesn't have the shelf life required for commercial shipments.
Those Old-Time Hachiyas
The Hachiya is an entirely different animal. It's the archetype of astringent persimmons, which, when unripe, pucker the mouth with the soluble tannins in their flesh. This astringency disappears when the fruit ripens, as its golden-orange pulp softens to a custardy, almost gelatinous consistency, with a honey-sweet flavor. Hachiyas can be eaten fresh, with a spoon, but are mostly used in the kitchen, in puddings, ice creams, breads and cookies.
The center of Hachiya production is in the San Joaquin Valley. In the fall the orchards are a riot of flaming orange conical fruit. When I stopped by to see Art Wiebe in Reedley on a hot afternoon at the beginning of harvest, he was hitching a '48 Ford tractor to his "bucket wagon," hauling just-picked fruit to his old-fashioned wooden packing shed. Crusty and vigorous at age 79, he hardly broke a sweat as he toted buckets for the women to pack, stacked boxes of persimmons and operated the forklift.
"I started out with a few trees in 1960, when growing persimmons was just a hobby for most people, and gradually built it up to 17 acres," he said.