Originally created 09/26/03

Real jujube is not candy

The original jujube - the real jujube - is a fruit, not a candy. The fruit is hardly known in America, but the Chinese have been growing and eating jujubes for more than 4,000 years.

Jujube plants traveled beyond Asia centuries ago, to Syria, then to ancient Rome, and then, in 1837, to North Carolina. The plants aroused some interest as ornamentals, so in 1854 the U.S. Patent Office distributed jujube trees throughout the Middle Atlantic and Southern states. The U.S. Department of Agriculture started promoting the fruit itself after receiving propagating wood of better-tasting varieties that plant explorer Frank Meyer sent over from China in 1908.

Because of the jujube tree's handsome appearance and its adaptability to many soils, jujubes today are not uncommon dooryard trees in America's southern tier. But the fruit itself never did catch on. Say "jujube" and most Americans think of the cinema candy.

Outside of China, jujube fruits have sometimes been called "Chinese dates." Although botanically unrelated, jujube and date fruits do resemble each other in appearance, texture, and flavor. The just-ripe fruit is the color of mahogany and is as shiny and smooth as if buffed with a cloth. At this stage, the flesh is crisp and sweet, reminiscent of an apple. Left to ripen further, the fruit begins to wrinkle, and the flesh changes from light green to beige and becomes spongy - this is when the fruit becomes datelike.

Although jujubes were earmarked for warmer areas of this country, they survive winter cold to at least minus 22 degrees F, so could possibly be grown in the North. Given adequate heat and sun, jujube trees thrive without any special care.

Jujube is a small tree, rarely growing more than 30 feet high. The leaves are small and glossy, and the branches have a naturally drooping habit that is made more so when they are weighted down with fruit.

The hundred pounds of fruit that a single jujube tree can produce do not all ripen at the same time, so the fruits must be picked every few days for a month or more. In China, these fruits are eaten fresh, dried, smoked, pickled, as a butter, and - yes! - candied. In a 1911 report from China to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Frank Meyer included a recipe for making "Chinese honey jujubes." The recipe involved boiling the dried fruits in successive changes of sugared water. That was the real jujube candy.


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