Jujube, an Uncommon Fruit

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Jujube is an interesting fruit that is uncommon in eastern NC, but has been cultivated for more than 4,000 years in China. Over 400 cultivars are known and some of the improved selections were introduced to the US in 1908. Jujube is grown today in parts of Russia, northern Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East and southwestern United States. It also grows in most of the southern half of North America where there are long growing seasons and hot, dry weather during ripening.

The jujube (juh-ju-bee) is a member of the buckthorn family, or Rhamnaceae. Its botanical name is Ziziphus jujuba and its common names include Chinese jujube, Chinese date or jujube. Though the plant’s origin is probably Syria, it was distributed throughout much of the Mediterranean region at least 3,000 years ago and today is most widely grown in China.

I saw a small multi-trunked tree for the first time growing in the J. C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh and was intrigued by the unusual mottled gray/black bark that was rough and shaggy. The tree was full of one inch long dark red fruit that had the shape of an olive. My first nibble revealed sweet, chewy pulp surrounding a center core with a seed. The fruit tasted to me like a dried apple.

Michael Dirr describes jujube as a unique small tree with handsome lustrous green foliage. The deciduous tree grows 12 to 15 feet tall and over time develops a graceful, gnarled shape. Most varieties have thorns on young branches.

A large number of fragrant yellowish flowers are produced in the leaf axils from the current season’s growth. Flowering extends over several months from late spring into summer which helps protect the crop from late spring frosts. The fruit ripens gradually over time and can be picked for many weeks. Most jujube cultivars produce fruit without cross-pollination.

The fruit can range in shape from round to oval to egg shaped to pear shaped. Size also varies from a cherry to a plum depending on the cultivar. The fruit has a thin edible skin surrounding the whitish flesh. The immature fruit is green in color but ripens to a dark red and eventually a black color. The fruit is edible beginning with the color change in late summer and starts out crisp. After becoming fully red the fruit begins to soften and wrinkle, but remains tasty. Many different cultures have used the fruit for medicinal purposes for many years.

Jujubes seem to have no serious pest problems and will thrive without special care. The trees prefer a sunny location with sandy, neutral pH, well drained soil. Once established, the roots are very tolerant of salinity, drought, or standing water. During periods of extended drought, the tree will likely survive but without a crop.

Trees require very little pruning or training. The best time to prune for repair or shaping is late winter or early spring before the tree breaks dormancy. Fruits are borne on long-lived spurs, much like apples. Root suckers can be a nuisance, but most gardeners consider them a minor one.

‘Li’ is the one to plant if you have room for only one tree. Fruits are abundant, round, 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter, and sweet. It matures early, a great benefit in short-growing-season areas.

‘Lang’, compared with ‘Li’, is taller, and the fruit is a bit more elongated or pear-shaped, about 3/4 inch in diameter and 2 inches long, and has thicker skin. The fruit is a bit less sweet than that of ‘Li’ and best eaten dried. The branches are nearly thornless.