Every spring I witness a heartbreaking sight here in north Florida. In yard after yard —even though it’s still winter — there are trees loaded with golden fruits. That’s not the sad part; the sad part is that these fruit are falling off the trees, uneaten except by birds, squirrels and adventuresome children.
At some point, people seem to have relegated the loquat tree into the realm of landscaping rather than food. This isn’t entirely madness, since the loquat is one of the prettiest trees you can grow with its deep green, crinkly evergreen leaves and dense form; however, it’s just another symptom of our weird culture that people don’t bother eating the loquat’s delicious sweet-tart fruit.
Here in the U.S., the loquat is also known as the “Japanese Plum.” In Japan, it’s been bred into many productive cultivars — but here, almost every tree you’ll find is an unimproved seedling variety. That doesn’t mean they’re worthless; it just means their fruits vary from tree to tree in color, size and sweetness. I’ve never seen a loquat tree produce something that wasn’t worth eating.
Like many of our favorite edibles (including apricots, apples, plums, pears and a bazillion other things), the loquat is in the Rosaceae family. Unlike some of its pickier cousins, however, it’s generally a disease-free, care-free tree.
When I was a kid, my grandma had a loquat tree in her backyard in Fort Lauderdale. Every year, it would bear a crop or two of fuzzy fruits that we’d eat by the handful — provided we caught them in time! And therein lies the reason why the loquat isn’t really a commercial crop, at least in North America: its fruits ripen and get soft way too rapidly for shipping purposes. So despite their pleasant flavor and abundant yield, loquats don’t fit into the factory farming distribution model. If you want fresh loquats, you have to grow your own or find a tree locally.
If you’re growing loquats near the top of the tree’s range, you may have trouble with fruiting. Though the tree can handle temperatures almost down to zero without being killed, the blooms and fruit can be lost if the weather falls into the mid-20s. Because this tree blooms in the middle of winter, you might not have luck with it past USDA Zone 8 or so, unless you have a protected microclimate or live near the coast where the freezes are a bit more moderate. I have a friend who’s tried to grow it without luck in Tennessee, even though it can technically survive there. Even here on the lower edge of Zone 8, we lose crops now and again to frost.
In Zone 9 and 10, the loquat really comes into its own. If you like making jams and wines, or drying fruit, the loquat is a great candidate for preserving, especially since it has such a brief period of ripeness. When it’s loquat-harvesting time, you need to drop everything and get processing!
Loquats contain one or more smooth pits inside them that are easy to discard. These are also cyanogenic, so don’t eat them … it could cause cyanide poisoning. There are reports that the Japanese use loquat pits to make a form of sake, but I haven’t tried that.
Many nurseries carry loquat trees, so keep your eyes open. You’re likely to save a few years of waiting by buying one that’s already at least 4 to 5 feet tall. The tree rarely gets much over 20 feet or so, so don’t worry too much about it being too big for your yard. In fact, I’ve seen them used as large hedges. The natural form of a loquat is a rounded mound, though many people limb their trees up to make them more attractive in the landscape. Personally, I prefer the loquat’s original shape since it makes harvesting fruit a lot easier.
If you don’t mind the wait, germinating loquat pits is easy, provided you have fresh seed. Put a handful in a pot, start watering them, then pull out and pot up the sprouts as they get bigger. It takes a few weeks for germination but the rate is high. From seed, loquats take about six years to bear fruit… so start planting now!
For more on loquats, check out Florida Survival Gardening.
Photo by Fotolia/Reika