I’ve always liked the loquat fruit. It was perhaps the first fruit that ripened each spring, yet hardly anyone seemed to eat them. They just fell to the ground and were consumed by birds or squirrels. I enjoyed their sweet, crisp tartness, and when I found someone else who ate them it was as if we were a part of some underground society that knew the secrets of the landscape.
Loquat trees are widely planted in the urban landscape because they are drought-tolerant, easy to care for and evergreen.
The loquat, also sometimes known as the Japanese medlar, is one of those fruits that seem to be everywhere. This smallish tree — up to 15 feet tall — is somewhat common in California and, fortunately, more and more people are getting to know it. More importantly, more and more people are beginning to value this sweet fruit.
The loquat’s native homes are China, Japan and northern India. Its leaves are broad and pointed at the end, averaging about eight inches in length. Each leaf is a dark shade of green on the upper surface. The underside is a lighter green, with a characteristically woolly texture.
The tree produces white flowers in the late autumn and its golden-yellow fruits are among the earliest fruits to mature in the spring. They are small, oblong fruits that can be about two inches long. The flesh is sweet and tangy, but free of fiber, and each fruit contains a few large brown seeds.
If the tree is cultivated in your yard you can produce some bigger fruits. If trees are just allowed to go wild, the fruits tend to get smaller each year, though they are still delicious. I think they’re great simply chilled and eaten fresh. You can remove the seeds and serve a bunch of the fruit with some ice cream.
If you’re on the trail and happen upon some loquat trees, just stop and enjoy a few. They make a great refreshing trail snack. The fruit is high in vitamin A, dietary fiber, manganese and potassium. It’s not uncommon to find a loquat tree in the wild or on the fringe of a park or mountain picnic area. The seeds are good survivors, with many sprouting after being casually tossed away.
Once the large seeds are removed, the sweet and tender flesh can be readily made into jams or pie fillings. Just use a recipe that you already know for some other fruit, like peaches, and substitute loquats. You’ll find that they make an excellent jam or jelly.
Eating “a lot” of the fruit is said to have a gentle sedative effect. Though “a lot” is not defined, I have eaten up to three cups worth over the course of a day with no noticeable sedative effects.
Loquat syrup made from the leaf is used in various Chinese sore throat syrups, as well as in cough drops. The leaves are usually combined with other ingredients (honey, for example) and the demulcent effect soothes the respiratory and digestive systems.
The young leaves contain small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides, releasing cyanide when digested. By using mature leaves for tea and drying them, then making them into a tea with boiling water, there is almost no danger of toxicity.
After the seeds are planted, they readily sprout. It’s pretty easy to grow new loquat trees, and they will produce fruit in a few years. Though they’re pretty drought tolerant, they will still produce better fruit if they are watered and fertilized with some regularity.
Mary Sue Eller is a professional Southern California cook. She makes a fabulous loquat jam that she sells at the Highland Park farmers market every Tuesday, as well as other farmers markets. She begins with four cups of fresh loquats, which she washes and deseeds. Then she puts them into a pot and adds just a little water, one to two cups of sugar (depending on sweetness desired) and the juice of one lemon. She brings the temperature to 220 degrees Fahrenheit then lets it simmer for an hour or so until it gets thick. Then, she puts it into sterilized jars. Mary Sue advises home canners to research the details of proper home canning.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of the newly released “Nuts and Berries of California,” where a version of this article first appeared. Nyerges is also the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Foraging California,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He can be reached at SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA, 90041.