Written by Anna-Marie Barnes
This article was first published in Lifestyle Block

You’ve probably heard gardeners and self-sufficiency enthusiasts talk wistfully about the ‘hungry gap’ as winter turns to spring. In terms of fruit and vegetable production, the late winter and early spring months can be deceptively sparse, as the cold-weather crops finish or bolt to seed and the new-season crops are in their infancy. This is particularly applicable to the fruit crops – citrus has its heyday and then declines, rhubarb fills a gap, then the early strawberries pop in, but the hefty summer crops of stonefruit and berries are still a way off.

Enter the unlikely subtropical star – the loquat, Eriobotrya japonica, sometimes known as Japanese or Chinese plum, or Japanese medlar. Native to the hill regions of south-central China, it has been cultivated in Japan for more than 1000 years, where it is now naturalised – the most likely route into the country being via seeds carried back by Japanese scholars studying in China during the Tang Dynasty. As with many exotic fruits, dispersal of the loquat to other continents via botanists, immigration and trade routes now means the fruit is cultivated widely in both home gardens and commercially across Europe and the Middle East, the Americas (including the warmer regions of the United States), South Africa, India, Australasia and Oceania. Thriving in mild to sub-tropical climates and providing the benefits of an attractive evergreen landscape specimen tree as well as a productive edible crop, what’s not to like?

Loquats: a short family history

Loquats were originally classified as belonging to the genus Mespilus and thought to be a close relative of the medlars, those not-edible-until-rotten oddballs. In 1780, the fruit was reclassified by British botanist John Lindley into its own genus, Eriobotrya – derived from the Greek roots for ‘wool’ and ‘cluster’, no doubt a reference to the furry flower bunches borne in the winter months. This historic link with Mespilus gave rise to a thatch of derived common names throughout Europe and beyond – nespolo (Italy); níspero (Spain); nĕspero (Portugal); naspli (Malta) and amusingly, “misbelief” in Louisiana, Southern USA – the latter is thought to stem from the local pronunciation of Mespilus. The modern Chinese name for the loquat is pipa, a reference to the fruit being shaped like a miniature version of the traditional lute-like stringed instrument bearing the same name. China and Spain are the main producers of export fruit on a global scale.

So, what do loquats taste like? The most common descriptors are a cross between an apricot and a plum, others say with additional hints of peach, cherry, cantaloupe and various tropical fruits, often with a citrus tang or floral accents. When fully ripe, the flesh is sweet and juicy, the skin is relatively thin (and can be consumed, no need to peel), but be forewarned, the inner cavity harbours several large inedible seeds. Like other members of the Rosaceae, these seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides (remember our friend the bitter almond from back in September?) and therefore should not be consumed. The loquat also stands out as being one of the few subtropical fruits within this plant family. Being thin-skinned and of soft texture when ripe, the fruit marks and bruises easily, so is seldom seen for sale in mainstream supermarkets – farmers’ markets, roadside stalls or a neighbour’s tree may be your best bet for acquisitions. I have been unable to track down the loquat’s exact arrival date in New Zealand, but many of our earlier cookery writers (Aunt Daisy for one) provide several recipes for the fruit, so it is certainly not a recent import.

Suitable climates and growing conditions

Before we tackle the next section, please note that loquats/E. japonica are subject to a sustained control pest management order under the Regional Pest Management Plan in the Auckland Region. In short, from 1 September 2022 you:

Will not be allowed to breed, distribute, release or sell loquat within the Auckland region.

 Will not be allowed to plant loquat within the Auckland region, unless you are transferring an existing plant on your land to another location within the boundaries of the same property.

 Must destroy any loquat on land that you occupy if it has been planted in breach of the above rules and you are directed to do so by an authorised person.

Why are loquats an issue in these areas? Loquat seed is readily dispersed by both birds (inadvertently) and by humans via intentional cultivation. I have also heard reports of omnivorous dogs enjoying the fruit and also acting as an efficient means of dispersal! Thriving in the subtropical climate of northern New Zealand, loquats unfortunately have the tendency to encroach on and invade native forest areas and specifically, interfere with the mid-tier canopy dynamics, becoming a dominant species. Sorry far-Northerners, unless you have an existing tree on your property, this one’s not for you. For more detailed information, see https://www.tiakitamakimakaurau.nz/protect-and-restore-our-environment/pests-in-auckland/pest-search/erijap/ For gardeners further south, loquats can still be planted, but if you’re at all worried about their status, check with your regional authority.

The loquat is fairly hardy and it’s worth a try in most parts of New Zealand where the climate is mild, with the only caveat and risk to fruitfulness being the temperature around flowering time – loquats flower late autumn to winter, so temperatures below 0°C during flowering may impede fruit set. The tree itself will handle temperatures as low as -9 to -11°C. Depending on location, the fruit (which is about the size of a small apricot or medium-sized plum, 3-4 cm in diameter) ripens in mid-late November through December and are borne in clusters – cut them off with snips to avoid tearing the skin of individual fruits.

Loquat foliage is very attractive – large, long oval leaves which are a glossy deep green, with white, felted undersides. Clusters of again felted and fuzzy white flowers are produced in late autumn and into winter and are highly scented, with a vanilla-almond fragrance. The essential oil from the flowers has been extracted for use in perfumery in France, but the yield produced is not particularly high. Like its other relatives in the Rosaceae, apples and pears, loquat fruit are botanically pomes or accessory fruits, formed at the swollen base of each flower. Loquats are insect-pollinated and predominantly self-fertile, but planting more than one tree ‘just in case’ should ensure satisfactory fruit set.

Site selection and planting

Loquats are a poster child for easy-care crops. Choose a sunny position – though partial shade will also be tolerated. Young trees will require some frost protection as they establish. Although reasonably wind-tolerant, it should be noted that loquats are shallow-rooted and therefore not immune to toppling over in extreme conditions. They are also well-suited to container culture, especially the dwarf Japanese cultivars – this may extend fruiting potential in marginal climates, as the trees can be shifted to a more sheltered location during adverse weather. Loquats do best in fertile, well-drained soil types but are fairly tolerant of a range of conditions – including a degree of water stress as well as reasonably wet soils, although these may impact fruit production if the tree is subject to them for extended periods. The average mature tree height is five to ten metres, with dwarf cultivars reaching three to four metres and some as small as 1.5 metres at maturity.

Loquats can be propagated from seed – fresh seed has good viability, although be aware that seedling trees will take eight to ten years to produce a decent crop. My seedling has been in the ground about four years and has only really shot away height-wise this current growing season. Grafted trees will fruit much earlier, at two to three years of age. Loquats are grafted on to either quince rootstocks (resulting in small-statured trees but with the by-product of a lot of suckers) or loquat rootstocks (giving larger, taller trees). If you like to tinker with propagation techniques, air-layering is another method that gives good results. Loquat cuttings do not readily form roots so this method is best avoided.

Culture and care

The loquat requires minimal maintenance. In terms of fertiliser, an annual application of general fertiliser in spring is all that is necessary – follow the rates given on the bag. Make sure your tree has adequate water during flowering (bear in mind this is late autumn to winter) and fruit formation in spring to early summer.

Pruning

Prune your loquat immediately after harvesting the fruit, before the period of summer vegetative growth begins. Keep the centre of the tree open to allow light penetration and good airflow. Prune young trees with their future shape in mind, removing any branches that look out of balance. If you are developing your loquat as a landscape feature or shade tree, you might want to consider removing all branches to a trunk height of about two metres as the tree grows. Tree height can also be managed with judicious pruning.

Pests, diseases and what to do about them

Loquats are a fairly hardy in terms of pests and diseases – a few generalist insects such as aphids, scale insects and leafroller caterpillars may show up from time to time, as can fruit flies around harvest when the fruit is ripe. Birds are the number one vertebrate pest at harvest – pick ripe fruit regularly and consider netting if your tree is small enough.

The bacterial disease fireblight, caused by the pathogen Erwinia amylovora and which affects many members of the Rosaceae including apples, pears, quince, hawthorn and crabapples among others, is also of concern, especially in warm, humid spring weather. Keep an eye out for stem cankers and blackened, burnt-looking shoot tips and flower buds, which often have a distinctive drooping ‘shepherd’s crook’ shape. Prune out and destroy (burn or send to landfill) affected material and seal cuts with pruning paint. Pseudomonas spp. can also cause significant cankers, tree removal and replacement may be the best solution for these.

Fungal pathogens affecting loquats include Phytophthora spp. (causes crown rot, can be exacerbated by prolonged wet soil conditions) and Venturia inaequalis (causes black spot or black scab, as seen on apples).

Varieties: My top picks

Mogi – the most popular loquat selection in Japan, an early cropper, with small, sweet, light-yellow fruit. Produced by Waimea Nurseries and Incredible Edibles.

WikiTM Gold – A New Zealand selection, large, juicy, golden-yellow fruit. Produced by Waimea Nurseries.

Kusunoki – Small fruit with orange-yellow flesh. Produced by Waimea Nurseries

Kaitaia Gold – A New Zealand selection, large yellow fruit, ripens in spring. Produced by Incredible Edibles.

Thames Pride – A New Zealand selection, juicy yellow fruit. Produced by Incredible Edibles.

What to do with your crop

Provided you can beat the birds to your crop, the number one use for loquats is for eating as a fresh fruit in that barren window between spring and summer fruit crops. Should you be faced with a glut, you can try turning them into cordial (a handy addition to tropical cocktails I’m told) or jam (marmalade-y in texture but with its own unique flavour). They lend themselves well to fruit salads, as a stewed fruit for breakfast and go well in baked goods such as pies and puddings. Loquats are available imported in canned form so I see no reason as to why they couldn’t be bottled, a la New Zealand home preserving fashion. Next time I get my hands on a bagful I’ll be making some fruit leather.

In Italy, nespolino liqueur is produced from loquat seeds, much in the fashion of amaretto being made from bitter almond kernels – as mentioned previously, the seeds contain toxic compounds, but this liqueur is made from loquat cultivars known to have low concentrations of cyanogenic glycosides to avoid the risk of cyanide poisoning!

Our own Digby Law gives recipes for loquat pickles and loquat sauce in his seminal ‘Pickle and Chutney Cookbook’ and Aunt Daisy gives two recipes for loquat jam (one which turns a ‘rich red colour’) and one for loquat jelly in her undated recipe collection, Cookery No. 5.

A Chinese legend has it that fruit from loquat trees would fall into the river, where they would be consumed by carp. The fruit would give the carp the strength to swim up the waterfall, where they would turn into dragons. Thus, only Chinese royalty were allowed to eat loquats because they didn’t want commoners to gain the power imbued in the fruit.

Commoner or royalty, give loquats a go – I’m sure their hardy good nature and versatility will win you over in no time. I’ll leave you with a healthy loquat-infused cheesecake recipe with a Kiwi twist.

Guilt-free loquat cheesecake

This is a general guide, rather than a strict recipe, so alter the quantities to fit your dish size and suit your personal taste.

Base – in a food processor or similar, combine crushed Weetbix and pitted dates. Bind with a small quantity of fruit juice of your choice and press into a greased flan dish.

Cheesecake layer – blend together cottage cheese, Greek yoghurt and thick loquat puree (sweetened to taste) and pour over base.

Refrigerate until firm and serve with extra fruit and yoghurt.

Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association who endeavours to grow and preserve as much of her own fresh produce as possible. When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.

The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organisation promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage and other productive crops. Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/

Image credits

Eriobotrya japonica foliage and flowers – İsmet Şahin, via Pixabay
Loquat flowers – naobim, via Pixabay
Loquat fruit – gi8mail, via Pixabay
Loquat fruits and foliage – Hans Braxmeier, via Pixabay