Back in mid-June of 2013 I took several students on a plant identification outing to prepare them for competition. Loquats weren’t on the list of plants they needed to learn, but the kids were attracted to them. Fruits were at their peak of ripeness and we ate a bunch of them.
They argued about the flavor but all described it as very sweet. Some said the pulp tasted like apricots, while others pegged the flavor more like a mixture of mango, peach, pineapple and orange. Nobody who mustered the nerve to try them was disappointed.
Loquats (Eriobotrya japonica) grow in clusters and are yellowish orange, nearly round and about one and a half to two inches in diameter. Each fruit contains anywhere from two
to five large brown seeds. For best results allow loquats to ripen on the tree. Skin is slightly fuzzy but edible. Ripe fruit had a refrigerated shelf life of less than two weeks.
Trees may reach heights of 30 feet, but most of the mature specimens we saw were less than half that. Leaves are fairly large. Some were close to a foot long and three or four inches wide in the center. Leathery evergreen foliage is dark green and glossy on the upper surface with white to rusty colored hairiness on the underside. New growth is sometimes tinged with red.
Loquats are native to China but thrive in Japan and have been cultivated there for more than a thousand years. They don’t grow well in extremely hot climates but can’t tolerate temperatures of less than about 15 degrees. Fruit can be damaged or killed at temperatures below 20, so in some years trees might not fruit.
Trees are wind tolerant and grow best in full sun, but also do well in partial shade. They draw interest, which makes them a great specimen tree for landscapes. Loquats thrive on sandy soils to those containing mostly clay, but good drainage is crucial. They aren’t heavy fertilizer users.
Flowers are pollinated by bees and other insects. Usually fruit set is enhanced by crosspollination, so if you plant commercial cultivars you might want to plant two different ones. If plants are grown from seed this isn’t necessary as long as you plant two.
Fire blight, caused by a bacterium, is the major disease of loquats and infections can be severe. Many pears have similar problems. Timely pruning and sanitation are the best remedies as bacteria diseases are usually difficult and expensive to control in plants.
Loquats are great when eaten fresh. However, since they have a short shelf life it is often necessary to preserve some. They bake and can very well. Possessing high pectin content similar to apples makes them a great candidate for jams and jellies. These sugary fruits are also quite suitable for making wine.
Herbalists state that consuming loquat leaf tea or helps regulate blood sugar levels and break down blood alcohol. Numerous other claims are touted. The reassuring part here is that even if benefits are exaggerated no side-effects have been found.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.