Apples, peaches, cherries, nectarines, plums… these all have one thing in common here in north Alabama. They are very hard for a backyard gardener hoping for high quality fruit to grow. They require frequent spraying, and, as they grow, special equipment to cover the whole tree with the appropriate anti-fungal or pesticide for that week. These fruit require a serious commitment. But that’s not true for all fruit. One fruit which loves our climate and requires virtually no care at all is the jujube (Ziziphus jujuba).
Originating in southern Asia and domesticated for over 4,000 years, the jujube has spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and even into the Caribbean. There are no pests or diseases that affect this plant in our area, save for the occasional bird sampling the fruit. (Birds don’t seem to like them.) They are tolerant of heat, cold, many kinds of soil and really only want sun and room to grow. And grow they do: their habit is less that of a tree than a thorny hedge, it suckers freely, and can reach 20-40′ tall.
The fruit and leaves have both been used medicinally for a variety of reasons, but is not particularly useful for any conditions. One caveat: this plant may lower blood sugar. Those using blood sugar medication should monitor themselves carefully until your individual response is known.
Growing Your Own
The tree will thrive in almost any soil given enough sun and does not need supplemental watering in our climate. Indeed, the tree itself will survive on as little as 8″ of rainfall per year once established, but is unlikely to produce edible fruit with that little water.
Only the cultivars “Li” and “Lang” are commonly available. “Li” was bred for fresh eating but also dries well. “Lang” is a drying variety. There are superior cultivars out there for both purposes: hundreds available in China and a few dozen here in the United States. Keep your eyes open for alternatives.
Depending on rainfall totals, the fruit quality may benefit from additional water when the fruit are forming and ripening. The tree may appreciate a little nitrogen fertilizer, but do not fertilize heavily or with a 10-10-10 type of fertilizer. It doesn’t need it.
If you plant a grafted cultivar, and you should, your primary maintenance task will be cutting back root suckers a few times per year. If you are growing the tree for fruit, you don’t want these root suckers: the fruit will not be of the same character as the cultivar. Pruning to shape is unnecessary.
For non-edible uses, this plant could be grown as a very tall thorny hedge: in which case, let it grow and prune to shape and size. Its dense growth could provide shade or a windbreak, and I suspect the roots would work well for erosion control on a slope. Be forewarned: since humans can use the leaves for tea, I suspect livestock will snack on them as well.
Harvesting & Eating
Botanically a drupe, the fruits are harvested when about halfway brown to fully brown for fresh eating. That’s early to mid September in north Alabama. I have heard they can be allowed to fully dry on the tree, but in our humidity I don’t risk it; I would think the fruit would rot. Fresh, the fruit are crisp like an apple, sweet like a date, and usually fairly dry and mild tasting. If the tree has been well watered, the fruit will be juicier. The fruits of larger cultivars are the size of a hen’s egg; most seedlings and root suckers will produce fruit less than 1″ in diameter. They all contain a small pit. Fresh fruit store 1-2 weeks.
Dried, the fruit resemble the dried fruits of the Date Palm (what most of us think of as “dates,”) or a very large raisin. They are intensely sweet in taste. If drying in a dehydrator, use the same settings and temperature you would use for apples or pears. Storage life is a few months and refrigeration is recommended.