Let's get one thing straight: The fruit from the jujube tree has nothing in common with the corn-starch confectionary of the same name. You won't lose a filling while chewing on a jujube right off the tree. It has the crisp texture and refreshing sweetness of apples. When dried, the concentrated sugar turns the jujube into something like a giant raisin.
Also called Chinese dates, jujubes (Ziziphus jujuba) have been on our menu for thousands of years, with reason: The trees grow easily, tolerate cold and drought, and produce a lot of fruit, even at a young age. Jujubes spread from their presumed origins in southern China, and now more than 400 varieties exist.
Jujube trees can be grown from Florida to the Canadian border, but they are particularly well suited to Southern California's long, hot summers. They are low maintenance plants, needing only occasional deep watering so they spend their energy on fruiting instead of growing those rooting stems called runners. Jujubes don't do well in containers, but they can be espaliered or pruned to be kept low. They even do well surrounded by a lawn.
The fruits don't have a long shelf life, so throughout Asia jujubes are dried for use in cakes, candies, syrups, sauces and stews. Richie Huang's family in Cerritos leaves fruit in platters scattered around the backyard for weeks at a time. The fruit must be kept dry or it will mold.
Out in Diamond Bar, Pearl Kumar of the Growing Home has two trees in her front yard. Both produce so much fruit, she can't collect it all. Even the neighborhood birds can't deal with the abundance.
"In India we eat the jujube fresh," she said. "I like to juice it."
Malee Hsu, owner of Upland Nursery in Orange, said the Lang variety of jujube has a thicker skin and is often grown for dried fruit, while the Li, Sugarcane and Sherwood cultivars are better as fresh fruit.
"The skin of the Li is so thin that when it dries it's like a bubble," Hsu said. "Nothing is in there."
A single jujube tree barely a year old can produce pounds of plum-sized fruit in the fall. One caveat: Jujubes have spine-covered branches, making harvesting potentially painful.