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Propagating native persimmon trees by root cuttings: an experiment

 
Dan Boone
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In the 1915 USDA native persimmon bulletin I made into an ebook, there's a couple of paragraphs on how to propagate Diospyros virginiana by root cuttings. I've never seen this information anywhere else or heard of anybody who has tried it, so naturally, I want to!

Here's that the bulletin says:

Propagation of the Persimmon: Cuttage: Root Cuttings

The roots of persimmon trees sprout readily when the top is removed or when the main stem meets with serious injury. [This] offers an explanation for the occurrence of the large clumps of similar trees that are to be found in many abandoned fields. At some time the original tree was cut off near the surface of the ground and the roots sent up sprouts which, being undisturbed, developed into trees bearing similar fruit.

Roots the size of a lead pencil or larger can be used in propagating the persimmon. They should be cut into pieces 6 or 8 inches long, the ends sealed with grafting wax, hot beeswax, or pitch, in order to prevent the decay that develops rapidly in the soft, spongy wood, and the cuttings should then be buried over winter in sand or in a nursery row. They will grow readily the following spring, provided the moisture supply is plentiful until they become well established.


Now, it just so happens that I have a peculiar cluster of huge old persimmon trees at the back corner of our property. They are astride or very near the property line and leaning over a huge pile of dead trees (possibly not ours) intergrown with thorny smilax greenbriar and privet.



The persimmons on these trees are substantially larger than every other wild persimmon in these parts, almost the size of a small tangerine or satsuma mandarin orange. They are also softer, sweeter, and more yellow-orange in color, with an excellent flavor.

Because these trees are so tall and these larger persimmons so soft and fragile, virtually all the ripe persimmons *splash* when they hit the ground after falling fifteen, twenty, or thirty feet. Or they fall into the brush pile and are not reachable. A few land in the deep grass of an adjacent natural gas pipeline right-of-way, where they sometimes escape injury but are very hard to find. There's only one small fruiting branch that grows low enough for me to reach the fruit while it's still on the tree.

So these trees are natural candidates for propagation. Obviously I would love to clone them and grow smaller trees that I could keep pruned for easy harvest. I should coppice one of them so that (if it survives) there would be scion wood low enough on the tree for me to harvest for grafting, but I have not done that yet.

I've been meaning to get out there all winter to dig some roots to try the 1915 USDA root cutting method. Finally today I got to it.



Today I learned that large old persimmon trees are very protective of their roots, which dive deep immediately. I took a mattock, a hatchet, and a hand trowel. I should have taken a shovel, because I'm going to need a serious excavation to get small roots from these trees.

Today's test excavation resulted in a semicircular hole a couple of feet from the tree, about six feet long, fourteen inches wide, and about twelve inches deep. I didn't take a picture because (a) I forgot and (b) I don't want to give some real forest expert ammunition to natter at me about how I have killed these trees. I was as careful as I could be, but I'm accepting of the possible consequences of my roots disturbance. There are half a dozen other trees in this cluster, deeper in the woods, that produce little fruit due to light competition but appear to have the same awesome-fruit genetics judging by the fruit they do produce. So these individual trees are not unduly precious.

The trouble was, I basically found only two roots, both of which were as thick as the trunks of the trees and were plunging deep into the soil at a 45-degree angle. One of them had a little stub the thickness of my thumb, about six or seven inches long, terminating in a broken and blackened end near the soil surface. I'm not sure what happened, but the stub has feeder roots, whatever damage occurred did not kill the root from rot as my USDA manual predicted, and so I decided to take it. (I'll go back another day with better tools for excavating more deeply in the quest for more small roots.)

Here's the one root I did find:



And here it is after I air-dried it and waxed the fresh-cut end:



Given the time of year, I went ahead and planted the whole root in a nursery bucket, bedded well in some yummy home-made potting soil I manufactured last week. That's another story, but I came home pretty smug that day after finding a mixture of rotting wood, leaf mold, rodent poop, and fine soil in the hollow of a rotten oak stump. It went through my little scrap-wood-and-hardware-cloth hand screen like butter:



All in all:

I'm disappointed that I only found one plantable persimmon root fragment today with the limited amount of digging I was willing and prepared to do. However, on the bright side (a) I learned something useful about the root patterns of mature persimmon trees, and (b) the one root fragment I did find looks very vital and ready to grow like mad. Obviously I will update this thread as the season progresses, especially if I get new sprouts from this root cutting, or get back out to the woods and successfully dig some more.




 
William McGimpsey
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Have you gone back to see if anything has sprouted from around the old trees?
 
Zach Muller
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Hey dan, Cool experiment. Definitely keep us posted on the growth.

One question on what you did there. you said you let the root dry before planting, is this something you did because it is persimmon specifically? I have always read to never let the small roots dry out during transpanting, so I always make extra sure they dont.

Nice looking property
 
Dan Boone
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William McGimpsey wrote:Have you gone back to see if anything has sprouted from around the old trees?


Well, it's only been eight days, so I wouldn't expect to find anything much new. There is, however, one three-foot sapling about ten feet away in the pipeline right-of-way. I plan to watch it closely this year when it leafs to see if it is indeed a persimmon; and if it is, I'll probably transplant it. With luck it's a root sucker from my trees of interest, but even if not it's likely seed of their fruit, with some of their genetics. (I'm also planting seeds from this fruit this year, but that's a very long-term project.)
 
Dan Boone
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Zach Muller wrote:
One question on what you did there. you said you let the root dry before planting, is this something you did because it is persimmon specifically? I have always read to never let the small roots dry out during transpanting, so I always make extra sure they dont.


Well, I've seen that advice, but I always parsed it as an admonition against total dehydration. I had to wash the root so I could see the end that needed waxing; that's why the root is gleaming wetly in the first photo. All I did was let it sit there for ten or fifteen minutes in the pale sunshine, while I went and rummaged for some wax and a means of melting it. By the time I had hot wax, the root was dry to the touch but by no means devoid of moisture.

My specific advice said to seal the cut end in wax. Being drippy wet would complicate that, so I assumed (absent specific instruction) that I didn't need to keep the root drippy wet. I guess we'll find out if that was a mistake or not!
 
Zach Muller
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Hope it works out, thinking it over more I bet I have just been being overly cautious with the moisture level on roots, in my mind I was thinking having a wet surface protected it from the air. what you said makes sense though.
 
Stu Horton
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Hi,

Wondering how your experiment went. I have a load of prunings off a friends trees. I've heard rooting autumn stem cuttings is difficult. Any advice from anyone that's had success?
 
Ken W Wilson
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Location: Nevada, Mo 64772
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I was wondering if you got any new sprouts growing from where you cut that piece of root out?
 
Dan Boone
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Location: Central Oklahoma (zone 7a) ~39" rain/year
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Hey guys, thanks for the followup queries. I was out there a couple of months ago during Persimmon season and there are no new sprouts near or around the base of that tree where I dug and disturbed the roots.

As for my one piece of root cutting, it did not take off. It just rotted in the soil. Very likely my fault as I obviously did not manage moisture closely enough.

I have never heard of anybody having success rooting Persimmon stems, but if indeed it's possible, I would be delighted to learn of that.
 
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