History and Description
Most people I know locally, including many gardeners, are unfamiliar with loquats. Perhaps it’s that loquats are not good keepers and are best consumed fresh, making them a poor commercial crop. Or that, like almonds, their early blooming leaves them vulnerable and subject to weather vagaries that can affect pollination. As the California Rare Fruit growers site says: “Where the climate is too cool or excessively warm and moist, the tree is grown as an ornamental but will not bear fruit.” Whatever the reason, loquats are not the most widely grown backyard crop. It’s surprising, because loquats have been in California since the late 19th century. There are several robust specimens in Santa Rosa. In fact, Luther Burbank experimented with improving the fruit and recorded his work in the essay,” The Apricot and the Loquat: An Opportunity for the Experimenter”. My husband and I became loquat enthusiasts when we inherited our tree along with the house we purchased here in west Santa Rosa a decade ago. Since then, I’ve met several loquat lovers in the area who are as passionate as we are about this delightful, apricot-hued fruit.
Eriobotrya japonica, commonly known as loquat, Japanese plum, biwa, pipa or nispero, is an evergreen fruiting tree or shrub of the rose family, is native to southeastern China and naturalized in Japan centuries ago. E. japonica’s cousin, E. deflexa, an ornamental tree, also grows here in Sonoma County. Loquats have large, leathery, deeply-lobed leaves. E. japonica, the edible species, has in addition, fragrant white blossoms and produces clusters of sweet-to-tart, sub-acid fruit. The trees have adapted to sub-tropical, warm, mild climates in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Hawaii, Australian and New Zealand. The fruit is particularly prized in Japan.
In California, commercial loquats production is limited mainly to the coastal areas between Santa Barbara and San Diego. Here in Sonoma County, loquat trees bloom in late winter, and fruit around 90 days after bloom, from late May through July.
In spite of weather unpredictability, and a tendency toward alternate year bearing, home gardeners can enjoy good harvests of this uncommon and delicious fruit. As with any crop, providing the correct growing conditions and choosing the right varieties makes all the difference.
Loquat culture and care
Loquats do best in full sun or light shade, require moderate water for a good harvest, and adequate space for growth. Sunset Western Garden book states that loquats do well espaliered or in containers. Loquat trees average 15 – 30 ft in height, and as wide if not adequately pruned. They respond well to moderate pruning to keep the canopy down, and to allow light and air to circulate. Pruning is best accomplished after harvest, in late summer and early autumn, well before autumn rains and winter bloom. Though established trees survive to as low as 12° F, trees should be protected to insure a harvest, as flower buds die at 19° F and mature blossoms at 26° F. The seed is killed at 25°, causing premature fruit fall. California Rare Fruit Growers site lists Fire Blight (Erwinia amylovora) as a potential problem especially if there are late spring/summer rains and recommends removing scorched looking branches, and bagging or burning them.
Loquats trees bring a tropical evergreen lushness and Asian influence to the landscape. We designed a meditation area around our tree, with bamboo, a bench and Buddha statue.
But, it is the fruit that fuels the fervor of loquat lovers. People often ask me if loquats are related to kumquats. The flavor of this sub-acid fruit is actually more akin to apples and stone fruits like apricots and plums. Luther Burbank wrote that “the flavor suggests that of some early apples, but is generally considered superior.” Fruit enthusiast David Karp, (the self-styled Fruit Detective) sings its praises: “… a pleasant blend of apricot, plum and cherry with floral overtones, and is quite sweet when ripe.” And Sonoma County Master Gardener Mike Hawkins fondly reminisces: “… The loquat tree was ignored with no special watering as an established tree. Delicious fruit. Always more fruit than we could eat with no pruning… We happily ate all the fruit. I will have another one! Soon I hope.
Harvest fruit when soft-firm and vibrant in color. Fruit is not a good keeper and is best fresh right off the tree or refrigerated and eaten within a day or two at most. Loquats also make good jelly. (See recipe below). We enjoy ours fresh in salads combined with apricots, cherries, plums, blueberries and/or strawberries, chilled and tossed with a dash of balsamic or violet infused vinegar and a dollop of whipped or ice cream.
You can also look for loquats at farmer’s markets and at specialty Asian stores that sell produce.
Fruiting loquats seem difficult to find in Sonoma County. The nurseries I called don’t keep them in stock and trees must be ordered. One knowledgeable nurseryman at a tree farm in Fulton says they have been having trouble getting them from a supplier in Bakersfield CA, but are hoping to later in the season. There are several loquat sites online where trees can be ordered.
Sunset Western Garden book advises getting a grafted variety, if you want to be sure to get a good fruiter. I still haven’t gotten a specific identification on our own loquat, which is an orange-fleshed variety and very tasty. You can find many varieties listed in great detail on the California Rare Fruit Growers site. The following varieties are recommended by Sunset:
‘Champagne’ (best in warm areas)
‘Gold Nugget’(best n cooler regions)
‘MacBeth’ (exceptionally large fruit)