Are you looking for a fruit tree that doesn’t need to be expertly pruned, then sprayed several times each year for pest and disease control, to produce good fruit? Jujubes are a delicious fruit that is easy to grow as far north as where I live, a bit north of Atlanta, and it fits that description.
I haven’t grown jujubes in my own yard (yet), but my friend Eddie Rhoades, at Bittersweet Gardens, has several varieties growing in his yard. This past spring, he gave me a small jujube plant, which is still growing in a container. Pretty soon, though, my yard will have jujubes, too.
A few weeks ago, I went to visit Eddie’s yard and we talked about jujubes:
Jujube plant description
The jujube tree
The final, mature height of jujube trees varies a lot, depending on the variety. According to my copy of the book Fruits of Warm Climates, jujube plants can be “a bushy shrub 4 to 6 ft high, or a tree 10 to 30 or even 40 ft tall”
The plant has a taproot, which makes it hard to transplant once it is settled into place, but this deep root system protects the plant from minor droughts. The taproot can draw water from deep soil layers.
Jujube leaves are glossy and dark green. They will fall off in winter, leaving the zig-zaggy branches to provide visual interest.
Many jujube varieties have sharp, straight thorns, but not all do (just all the ones in Eddie’s yard…).
The flowers are tiny, which means jujubes won’t provide the kind of floral “flash” that some other fruiting plants do, but the contrast of the dark, orangey-red fruits against the glossy leaves in August and September make up for that lack.
Some jujube varieties do not need a second plant for cross-pollination to set fruit. However, others, such as ‘Li’, do; in addition, some varieties are partly self-fertile but will set more fruit if another variety is growing nearby.
Be sure to check, for any variety you might be purchasing, whether you need two different varieties (like most apple trees) to get an abundant fruit-set.
The Fruits of Warm Climates book says that pollinators for the jujube include honeybees, a wasp, and houseflies. I guess the good news is that, if we lose all our honeybees, as some beekeepers fear, our invincible houseflies will keep the jujubes coming!
In general, jujubes all have that granny-smith apple flavor, but some can have the astringency that crabapples can have. Planting a named variety known for good flavor will avoid that possibility, since some wild-type jujubes lean more toward the crabapple flavor (according to my book).
Best flavor is in fruits that are slightly underripe, that still have a bit of green. At this point, the fruits are crunchy, but unlike apples they are not juicy. University of Florida Extension notes that “the fruits are quite sweet and can be eaten fresh, candied, canned, or dried like dates”.
As the fruits mature and get soft, the texture gets mealy and the flavor changes away from that sweet/tart apple flavor. Harvesting at the right time is key to enjoying the fruit.
Some varieties, as Eddie points out, will have larger fruits that are easier to pick. His list of varieties to look for includes Li, Shanxi Li, Lang, and Georgia-866.
According to University of Florida Extension, a new tree can produce fruit as early as its second year.
Jujube planting and care
The good news is that jujube trees need little care, but, like most plants we hope to get food from, jujubes will benefit from some attention.
Spacing at planting, for when you are planting more than one tree, depends on the mature size of the variety you have chosen.
Eddie is growing many varieties of jujube successfully north of Atlanta. Jujubes are also growing well at the UGA horticulture farm outside of Athens, GA (I saw them when I went to a horticulture “open house” on October 4).
Even though jujube are usually thought of as a warm-climate fruit, University of Arkansas Extension says that jujube is hardy across the whole state of Arkansas.
Eddie’s productive plants are growing in red clay soil. According to my copy of Fruits of Warm Climates, sandy loam is the preferred soil type for jujubes, but the plants must be fairly adaptable to do so well here.
Texas A&M Extension says jujubes do best in soil that drains well, and that the plants can adapt to a wide range of soil pH. However, if the soil pH is higher than about 7.8, some nutrient deficiencies can occur.
Also, for fertilizer, only a bit of nitrogen fertilizer is recommended. As an organic gardener, sources of nitrogen I would use include compost (as a top-dressing or side-dressing) or the higher-nitrogen version of fish fertilizer.
The Fruits of Warm Climates book also says that jujubes can tolerate some salinity, which is good news for coastal gardeners.
Pruning — just a little
The recommendation is to prune new plants to maintain a single trunk and to prune off low branches — those within about 30 inches of the ground. If any branches are blocking a path or otherwise in the way, you may trim them off, too.
Any pruning to reduce the size of the tree should be done after harvesting the fruit, and up to 25% of the newest growth can be removed at one time, according to The Book.
When new jujube plants come up around the tree
A purchased plant is likely to be grafted, with a wild-type providing the rootstock and the variety with larger, extra-tasty fruits grafted on top. This means that any plants sent up nearby, from the rootstock, will have different fruits that will probably be smaller and with different flavor.
Mowing down any tiny trees coming up around the main tree will keep your yard from becoming a thicket of wild-type jujube trees.
Having-to-mow-down wild-type trees from a rootstock is not limited to jujubes, This is normal for many kinds of fruit, including more well-known fruits like apples and the Asian persimmon in my own yard, which is another easy-care fruit.
The Fruits of Warm Climates book lists some caterpillars as potential pests of jujubes, but those caterpillars are all in India. Here in the U.S., Texas A&M Extension says that jujubes are untroubled by pests.
The final word
Jujubes can be a valuable addition to a yard that is designed to provide good food with less work. Anyone looking to grow food with less spraying, especially, to reduce accidental losses of beneficial insects, might consider growing one of these trees.