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The Fall Garden / PLANTING

A flaming arrival

Persimmon trees are coloring the landscape, raising the perennial question: 'Hachiya' or 'Fuyu'?

September 27, 2007|Lili Singer | Special to The Times

AUTUMN hasn't truly arrived until the persimmon tree's foliage turns to sherbet shades, rivaling the best New England has to offer. By December, after the leaves have dropped, the tree bears its final spectacle: a canopy of limbs ornamented with nothing more than the season's last fruit.

For those who discover these joys of Japanese persimmons, the question isn't whether to plant the tree, but rather, which one? 'Hachiya' or 'Fuyu'? Fans of the 'Hachiya' praise the acorn-shaped fruit that eventually turns soft and sweet, while the cult of 'Fuyu' swears by the tomato-shaped type that's best eaten crisp, like an apple.

An informal survey at a recent gathering of the Southern California Horticultural Society yielded an even split. Half favored 'Hachiya' ("very sweet," "better flavor"); half preferred 'Fuyu' ("sweet and crunchy").

And one of the rare points of agreement? Both trees' merits in the home landscape.

"Nothing else in California has that bark," says nursery owner John Schoustra, a 'Fuyu' man simply because that variety is less messy to eat. "It's cool -- checkerboard with fissures."

Native-plant expert Bart O'Brien and bookseller Virginia Gardner admire the persimmon tree's shape, manageable size, strong structure and leaf colors -- gold, salmon pink, orange and cerise -- that are just right for the season.

"They go with nature," landscape architect Shirley Kerins says. "Those colors would look garish in spring."

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THOUGH Diospyros kaki is actually a native of China, it's commonly called Japanese or Oriental persimmon. Many varieties are sold in nurseries here, and Southern California provides ideal growing conditions.

The trees can be put in the ground year-round from containers, but the best time to buy them is during bare-root season, from late December into February. Bare-root trees are inexpensive and easy to plant. Persimmon trees take to most soils, are resistant to oak root fungus and need less water and fertilizer than citrus and stone fruit.

There are many species of Diospyros, including the American persimmon, D. virginiana, which has small, tasty conical fruit. But D. kaki, cultivated in Asia for centuries, is most esteemed among foodies.

Shapes, flavors, colors and textures vary. 'Hachiya' is the most popular of the soft, so-called "astringent" cultivars. Plants and nonastringent fruit sold as 'Fuyu' are most likely a cultivar called 'Jiro,' and so-called 'Giant Fuyu' could be a cultivar called 'O'Gosho.'

Some nurseries sell as many as a dozen cultivars with different ripening times. Gardeners can extend their harvest by planting more than one variety.

All the trees grow best in full sun, rising to 20 feet or higher, with equal spread. Eph Koenigsberg, a Sierra Madre resident and member of the Foothill Chapter of California Rare Fruit Growers, prunes his trees to remain under 10 feet for easy picking.

Prune young trees for good structure. In the dormant season, you should thin inner branches and judiciously remove old wood. Because fruit are borne on new growth off last year's wood, be careful with that snipping.

Careful watering also is crucial. Jim Bathgate, the Rare Fruit Growers' persimmon specialist, has raised the trees in cool, coastal San Juan Capistrano, where mature specimens need only monthly watering in summer, as well as farther inland in Valley Center, where he waters up to twice weekly during warm months.

To avoid life-threatening root rot, err on the side of dryness. Deep but infrequent watering is the ticket.

Though some fruit drop is natural, over watering and over fertilizing will worsen your losses. Squirrels and birds are serious spoilers too. Many a tree has been removed from gardens because too few fruit made it to the table.

Bathgate covers his ripening fruit with old socks -- "washed or unwashed," he says, joking -- a trick that deters the birds more so than the squirrels.

Smaller critters rarely bother persimmons. If mealybugs happen to gather near the stem of the fruit, they can be sprayed with a strong stream of water, insecticidal soap or horticultural oil.

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MAKE it this far, and your only concern may be an overly abundant harvest. Persimmons typically alternate between light-crop years and heavy years. The boughs of Deborah Urquhart's 'Fuyu' tree in Shadow Hills are loaded down with more than 200 fruit this fall. The squirrels are welcome to some. Her dog Nicholas will snack on others, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Persimmons can bear huge crops that weigh down branches, make the bark susceptible to sunburn and otherwise overtax the trees. Bathgate recommends thinning fruit in May or June, leaving no more than two fruit per branch tip. The process protects the tree, prevents burnout and makes annual harvests more consistent in size.

Come fall, you want to harvest 'Hachiyas' and 'Fuyus' as soon as they're orange. Cut the fruit -- don't pull -- with a bit of the stem attached.

Part of the charm of the 'Fuyu,' its fans say, is instant gratification. Pick, eat.

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