Loquat – the plum relative from China
Loquat is a woody perennial tree with an upright growth habit. It is native to China and is found throughout subtropical and mild temperate regions around the world. It is thought to have traveled to America with Chinese immigrants who settled in Hawaii.
Loquat is sometimes called Japanese Plum and has been grown in Japan for over one hundred years. It was formerly classified as medlar due to similarities between the species and therefore given the common name Japanese medlar. Loquats, however, have been reclassified to reflect a relationship much closer to other common fruits to which it bears a more accurate resemblance. As a member of the Rosacea family is a distant relative of plums, peaches, apples, pears, and roses.
Loquat fruits and leaves have a slight pubescence, which means there is a fuzz like on peaches. The fruits can be small or up to the size of a goose egg with anywhere between 1 to 4 seeds and flesh that is white, yellow, or orange. There are no varieties that are known to be seedless. The fruits can also range in sweetness and acidity from very tart with moderate acidity to sugary sweet with only mild acidity. The flavor resembles a mild sweet plum or apricot and is juicy with very thin to moderately thin skin.
Trees can be up to thirty feet tall (but are usually shorter in stature) with a rounded upright shape. Dwarf/ compact varieties are available. Loquats are usually underutilized as fruit trees in the United States and are used more commonly as a landscape plant than a commercial crop due to their beautiful evergreen foliage. Many people do not recognize them as even being edible until pointed out and the fruits are sampled directly from the tree! Some people have fond memories of eating them as a child and they are also common fodder for birds.
Selecting Varieties for Superior Fruit
Loquats are commonly grown from seeds. Selected and improved varieties are grafted onto seedling plants. Seedling loquats are not true to seed and can take between four to ten years to produce variable fruit that is usually tart, small, and full of seeds. Recommended grafting methods include cleft, saddle, and chip or t-bud. Seedlings can be grafted in place when already planted with one variety or more than one to create a cocktail plant.
Trees should be planted in the ground when established, usually after six months old when seedlings are selected and after one year old for grafted plants.
Seeds can be started in moist but well-drained, slightly acidic to slightly basic soil. Seeds should not be allowed to desiccate between collection and planting and will lose viability when allowed to dry. The best germination rate is observed in seeds from mature fruits.
Popular grafted varieties include Champagne, Golden Nugget (also known as Thales), Sherry, Oliver, Vista White, Big Jim, Avri, Yehuda, Macbeth, Bradenton, Tanaka, and Peluche. There are very over fifty varieties to choose from, including Chinese and Japanese varieties that are difficult to find.
Plant loquat in full to part sun. Plants do not perform as well in full shade, but dappled sunlight is tolerated.
How to Grow and Care for Loquat Trees
Loquat plants prefer slightly acidic to slightly basic soil that is kept moist to moderately dry. Well-drained soil is absolutely a necessity! They appreciate supplemental irrigation during fruiting and in periods of drought. Do NOT overwater or irrigate overhead, especially during flowering and fruiting to prevent damage to budding flowers and developing fruit.
Seedlings and established trees can tolerate a high amount of cooler weather and are even more tolerant of frosts and freezes as mature trees. Newly grafted or sprouted plants should be protected from extreme temperatures including drought, freeze, and heatwaves.
Some people practice fruit thinning with loquats to produce larger fruit that is higher in quality. This is simple to achieve by waiting until after flowering when the fruit has already set and removing a small percentage of fruit with clean hands, scissors, or pruning shears that is misshapen, crossing branches or other fruit, or low-lying or too high to reach.
Loquat plants can be pruned at any time of year. Dead wood should be removed routinely to reduce the chance of bacterial or fungal infection. They can be shaped to improve the canopy shape and ability to reach developing fruit.
Loquats are susceptible to a common ailment that also affects other members of the Rosaceae family. This ailment is a bacterial infection called fire blight and can kill a tree quickly for younger plants or over many years in older trees. Infected trees will look as though they have been burned or scorched in random parts of the canopy with browned leaves and branch die-back. Fire blight can be managed through specific cultural care and prevented with directed caution. Fire blight is not a soil-borne disease that will fester in the ground; it is spread by rain, wind, trimming/ pruning tools, and animals such as bees and other insects. Always be sure to prune loquats with clean tools that have been disinfected between cuts!
Loquat pests are not common other than birds, squirrels, uninvited humans, and rarely canines. Trees in especially warm climates might become susceptible to fruit flies.
Over fertilization, especially with too much nitrogen, can contribute to low fruit set and increased susceptibility to fire blight. Do not apply fertilizer when planting, and only apply a light application of general fruit tree fertilizer up to three times a year during the growing season.
Picking your Loquats
Loquats will usually flower from late fall to late winter, and once fruit sets, it takes around 90 days to mature.
Fresh loquats can be harvested as soon as the fruit is full-size and fully colored. Sweetness sometimes increases as the fruit ripens more on the tree but depending on the variety, they may stay tart and acidic no matter how long they are allowed to ripen on the plant.
Loquats can be picked individually by hand or by cutting the stem or entire panicle of the tree which holds the fruits. Care should be taken when picking fruit as the flesh will oxidize and turn brown when the flesh is exposed or the skin becomes damaged. The skin is usually thin and can be easily pierced.
Unripe fruit can be picked when they are full size and mostly fully colored and will ripen off the plant. Picking loquats that are not fully ripened on the tree will help extend the shelf life of the fruit. They can be picked and stored on the counter with stems intact or stored in the fridge in a covered container for longer periods of time.
Beware of loquat seeds! As a member of the Rosaceae family, the seeds share a similar quality to peach and apple seeds: they contain cyanide. Although they also contain amygdalin which has been touted as a beneficial treatment for serious illness, there have been several reported deaths directly attributed to the consumption of loquat seeds and seeds of other related Rosaceae members. Because they are larger than apple seeds and smoother and more tender than peach seeds, they pose more of a potential hazard, especially for small children. While the seeds are not toxic unless they are chewed and eaten in mass quantity, care should still be taken when processing fruit and sharing with kids and pets.
Numerous Uses of Loquat
Loquat can be eaten fresh as a whole fruit however some people (such as me) prefer to peel the fuzzy skin from the juicy flesh. The blossom end can easily be cut, which happens to make seed removal easy. It is a wonderful addition to salads and can be used in savory or sweet dishes as a replacement for peaches or plums.
The natural sweetness of loquats lends itself to desserts, quick breads, muffins, cakes chutneys, jams, jellies, cocktails, and sauces such as BBQ sauce. Loquats can also be dehydrated as whole fruit or pureed and dehydrated to make fruit leather and may also be made into wine.
The broad, attractive leaves of the loquat tree are used in floral arrangements. Leaves are occasionally brewed into a refreshing, potentially healthy tea.
Loquat seeds are utilized in an incredibly unique way in Italy- nespolino! Nespolino is a liqueur created by soaking the loquat seeds in a neutral liquor for an extended period. Sometimes vanilla, cinnamon, or other spices are added to the seeds and liquor while it steeps. The flavor is nutty and reminiscent of amaretto, and beverages containing nespolino usually only use a small amount to avoid the risk of cyanide poisoning.
Have you ever used applewood to smoke your food? Loquat wood can be used in a comparable manner and may also be used for carving, woodworking, and crafts.