On a visit to central Florida several summers ago, I became acquainted with the jujube or Chinese date (Ziziphus zizyphus). Although it has been cultivated in China for more than 4,000 years, I began cultivating it in my own garden for the past 12 years.
This deciduous tree is completely hardy in our area. In fact, it’s hardy from USDA zones 6 to 10, and fares best in the warmer part of this range.
Jujubes are relatively low maintenance, drought-tolerant trees that prefer a well-drained location in full sun or partial shade. They can become large shrubs or small trees, reaching a height of 15 to 35 feet with a spread of 10 to 30 feet. Zigzagging branches eventually give the tree a spreading, irregular crown. Their shiny green leaves turn yellow in the fall.
Many cultivars are thornless, although suckers arising from the roots often bear menacing spines. Unless these suckers are removed, they can result in a nearly impenetrable thicket.
In the spring and sporadically thereafter, fragrant, inconspicuous white to greenish-yellow flowers emerge along small branchlets, which can be mistaken for compound leaves. These flowers are self-fertile, not requiring cross-pollination for fruit set to occur. However, yield is sometimes improved by pollination from another variety.
The oval green fruits that follow range in size from a cherry to a small plum. Green at first, they eventually turn whitish and develop mahogany blotches, which indicate ripening. By late summer or early fall, the fruits turn completely dark red and become wrinkled. At this stage they can be harvested by vigorously shaking the tree. Even when picked at the whitish stage, however, they will continue to ripen normally.
The flavor and texture of fresh jujubes is akin to a sweet, somewhat mealy apple. High in vitamin C but low in acidity, the fruits can be stored in refrigerator for two to three months, or dried to resemble dates with a sugar content of 70 to 80 percent.
More than 400 varieties of jujubes are cultivated in China. ‘Li’ and ‘Lang’ are the most popular fruits in the U.S. I am growing ‘Li’ and ‘Sherwood.’ ‘Li’ is an early-ripening cultivar that produces the largest fruits of any jujube. They range from 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. ‘Sherwood’ originated as a seedling from southern Louisiana. Its fruits are smaller than ‘Li,’ but it ripens later in the season.
For more information about jujubes, visit the California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc. web site. If you’d like to know even more about them, purchase a copy of the Jujube Primer & Source Book by Roger Meyer and Robert R. Chambers (CRFG [ISBN 0-9675198-1-0]).