History of the Jujube Tree
The tree we know as Ziziphus jujuba Mill. is native to China, and originated in the middle to lower reaches of the Yellow River [Huáng Hé 黄河 (simplified Chinese) 黃河 (traditional Chinese)]:
The tree has been cultivated for over 4,000 years and over 800 cultivars exist today. (Though not here unfortunately!)
The modern jujube tree is descended from the wild, sour jujube Ziziphus spinosa Hu from the mountainous regions of northern China and still in existence today. Sour jujube trees with the largest and tastiest fruit were favoured and selected for, until over time a new species emerged, the Ziziphus jujuba with the fruit we enjoy today. There would have been wide variation of fruit size and shape from tree to tree, and continued selections at a regional level eventually produced trees that were still intrinsically Z. jujuba but with characteristics specific to that type and region. Today we call such trees cultivars and this localised refinement over many years and many parts of China is the reason for the many varieties available today.
The jujube tree was introduced throughout Asia, the Middle East and eventually Europe via the famed Silk Road. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) recorded in his Historia Naturalis (Natural History), Book XV, Chapter 14 that the Chinese jujube was introduced from Syria to Italy by Sextus Papinius towards the end of the Roman Emperor Octavian Augustus’ reign, which ended with the latter’s death in AD 14.
From Italy the tree spread further into Europe, where the olive-sized fruit was enjoyed as a table dessert and sweetmeat. The fruit was also used to soothe sore throats and ease coughs, and large quantities were imported from Provence and the Îles d’Hyères in southestern France into Britain for that market. Lozenges in the shape of the fruit, made from gum arabic or gelatin, and flavoured with the fruit or fruit imitations were also called ‘jujubes’. By the middle of the nineteenth century the word ‘jujube’ had became synonymous with soft gummy confectionery and the connection to the real fruit was lost.
Seedlings from Europe were brought to the US in 1837 and 1876, and commercial cultivars were directly imported from China to the US in 1908 by Frank Meyer. Meyer sourced these cultivars from Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Henan Provinces (all major jujube producers), as well as from Beijing and Tianjin. Some of those ultimately made their way to Australia by 2000.
While jujube grafting was known to the Chinese at least 1,400 years ago, propagation was mostly from root suckers until the 1960s. Fruit from root suckers was thus the same as fruit from the mother trees. In the 1980s new varieties started to appear and grafting became a more popular technique for increasing numbers quickly. Fruit from root suckers of grafted trees is thus different to the fruit of the graft.
Jujubes are still relatively unknown in Australia, and even in the US though established there for much longer. China unsurprisingly is the world’s largest producer, harvesting 9 million tonnes of fruit from around 3 million hectares.
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