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The State of Persimmons

November 08, 2000|DAVID KARP

The Oriental persimmon, Diospyros kaki, is native to China. In Japan, where it is particularly appreciated, it has been grown for 1,000 years.

California's recorded persimmon cultivation began with the importation of grafted trees from Japan in the 1870s, but in the early years, persimmons mostly served as a sideline, rather than a major crop. As the Asian-American population grew, however, small producers found they could sell their harvests at good prices. In the 1920s, as part of a general boom in subtropicals including avocados, dates and loquats, persimmon plantings surged from 500 acres to more than 3,000.

Substantial orchards were planted in Placer County and the Sacramento Valley, but three-quarter of the state's persimmon production was in Southern California, mostly in Orange and Los Angeles counties, where the trees were commonly interset in citrus groves.

While Los Angeles consumed a large share, shippers sent half the crop to eastern markets. The astringent Hachiya was the leading variety. Growers also experimented with dozens of others, such as the non-astringent Fuyu and the Hyakume, a brown-fleshed type renowned for its superb flavor.

As production increased, the Southern California Persimmon Growers Assn., formed in 1927, tried to promote persimmons to mainstream markets with recipe booklets, billboards and radio advertising. The fruit never became a staple, however, and in the 1930s, as a result of the Depression, overproduction and real estate development, persimmon plantings collapsed back to 500 acres, where they held through 1975.

In the mid-'70s to mid-'80s, Asian immigration sparked the state's second persimmon boom, as it had the first. This time, plantings of the snackable Fuyu predominated over the Hachiya, and most went into the San Joaquin Valley and North San Diego County. In the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 1997 Census, the latest count, the state had 3,459 acres of persimmons.

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