Q: My neighbor has a rather unusual tree in her front yard that I first noticed a couple of months ago when it suddenly seemed to be loaded with pretty yellow fruit. She said it is a loquat tree and offered me some to taste. Now I would like to know more about this tree.
A: The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), also known as a Japanese medlar, Chinese plum and Japanese plum, is a tree in the Rosaceae family that tends to blend into the landscape until it flowers in late autumn or early winter, with a very nice fragrance one can enjoy even from a distance. Then, in the spring or early summer, there’s fruit and … wow! It really is a beautiful tree with clusters of small, pear-shaped, yellow or orange fruit, 1-2 inches long, that tastes like a mixture of peach, orange and mango.
This fruit is similar to the apple in that it has high sugar, acid and pectin. Depending on the cultivar, the flesh can be anywhere from very sweet to acid. It can be eaten fresh, used in fruit cups and salads, or for making jellies, jams, pies or light wine.
The tree is an evergreen with a short trunk and textured foliage that is easy to grow and adds a nice tropical look to the landscape when mixed with other plants. It can grow 20 to 30 feet high, with the average being about 10 feet. It also works well as an ornamental grown in large containers.
The loquat has been grown in China and Japan for over a thousand years and was brought to the United States in the late 1700s. Japan is still the leading producer of loquats, followed by Israel and Brazil. It grows well in subtropical to mild temperatures around the world, and in the U.S. it is known to be grown in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Hawaii and California.
Although the trees will grow as ornamentals in climates that are too cool or too warm, they will generally not bear fruit there. Each fruit has three to five seeds, and they are surprisingly large in proportion to the fruit. The loquat is usually pollinated by bees, although some cultivars are at least partially self-fertile. Fruit size can be enhanced by thinning of flowers or early fruit clusters.
Loquats grow well in full sun or partial shade and are wind tolerant. They make great shade trees and are often used as espaliers on walls or fences. Although they are quite drought tolerant, they produce a better quality of fruit with regular, deep watering. But be cautious about watering too often, as they cannot tolerate standing water. They can be grown in a variety of soils, from sandy to clay or limestone, and they seem to especially like our Gulf Coast sandy soil.
As far as adding nutrients, some authorities recommend fertilizing once a year in midwinter to avoid excessive growth. Others recommend applying 6-6-6 fertilizer (for trees 8-10 feet high) three times per year during the period of active growth. The best idea may be to get your soil tested and then talk with a horticulture agent at the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service if you have questions.
Loquat fruits mature from full flower opening in about 90 days. As with other fruits, they taste much better if allowed to ripen on the tree. To avoid tearing the fruit, clip each individually or remove the whole cluster before snipping the individual fruits. Ripe fruit can be refrigerated for up to two weeks.
Pruning is recommended on young trees soon after harvest to allow light into the center of the tree and to control terminal shoots that can harm the tree’s growth and fruit production. Controlling the height of the tree allows for easier fruit-thinning and harvest, and the trees respond well — even to severe pruning.
Seeds can be used for propagation or for rootstock. For rootstock the seeds are taken from the fruit and planted in flats; when the seedlings are 6-7 inches high, they are transplanted. When the seedlings are big enough, they are used for grafting. Loquat trees grown using this method generally bear fruit in two to three years; those grown directly from seed take eight to 10 years to bear fruit.
Some popular orange-fleshed varieties of loquats are Big Jim, Early Red, and Gold Nugget. White-fleshed varieties include Advance, Champagne and Victory.
Interesting note: In Central America, loquat trees are sometimes grown specifically for fence posts and furniture because of the wood’s hardness, durability and resistance to disease.
California Rare Fruit Growers Inc. provided most of this information, and much more about loquats, on the internet. Check it out to learn more.
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