For anyone not familiar with Eriobotrya japonica, more commonly known as the Japanese loquat tree, you’re not alone. While these lush, evergreen fruit trees may be in the same family as apple and pear trees, they are certainly not the most common of trees in South Carolina gardens.
Byron Johnson credits his grandfather with instilling in him a love of plants and introducing him to the loquat. A prolific gardener, according to Byron, his grandfather consistently won “Yard of the Month” with his collection of plants and flowers.
“He had all types of plants. He’s the only person I could have learned it all from, and he had a loquat tree.”
While Byron was born in Columbia, he grew up in Brooklyn, New York, after his parents retired there. He may have learned about gardening from his grandfather, but he did not put his talent to use until later.
“I really didn’t do any planting until after I met my wife and we moved to Long Island,” he says, “but we always got compliments on our flowers and the lawn.”
When their oldest son chose to attend the College of Charleston, the Johnsons decided to retire back to Columbia in 1998 and chose the northeast area of Columbia in which to settle. Remembering the tree in his grandfather’s yard, Byron put his green thumb to work, and two years after building their house, he planted a loquat tree, along with many other favorite shrubs, such as hydrangea, holly bushes, oleander, Confederate rose, and crepe myrtles. He also has a selection of other exotic fruits, including a kumquat and a pomegranate tree.
As loquats do, the tree matured and began to produce fruit. Byron has to compete each year with the birds and squirrels, but he devised a plan so they could all share in the bounty from the 30-foot tree.
“I let the birds have the fruit at the top,” he says, “and I tried to appease the squirrels by giving them nuts to keep them away from the fruit.” His plan did not quite work the way that he thought it might, so the squirrels get a double treat, stuffing their cheeks full, eating some now and saving the rest for later.
Byron and Connie, his wife, work together as a team in real estate, and clients who show an interest in plants may receive a very special treat when they purchase a home through the Johnsons. Byron collects seeds from his loquat fruit each year and plants them in trays in a dedicated corner of his backyard, along with a selection of cuttings and offshoots from other plants that he grows. If he senses a client is particularly worthy and their home has the right growing conditions for a loquat tree, he may bestow one of his precious seedlings on them. The seedlings require a couple of years to grow strong enough to be ready for transplanting to a garden.
“I’ll mention gardening and ask if they like plants. I guess I’m interviewing them to see if they are plant people,” he says. “I would guess probably 50 to 60 loquat trees around Columbia came from my tree.”
For Karen Storay, the loquat tree also brings back fond memories from her childhood. A native of Sydney, Australia, Karen recalls living in such a crowded neighborhood that houses sat practically on top of each other with not a bit of space for gardening; however, a neighbor who lived across the street had the luxury of having room for exotic fruit trees, including a loquat tree. During a visit, she got to experience her first taste of the sweet fruit, and that was the beginning of her love for loquats.
“We didn’t even own a flower pot,” she says, “so I took my favorite beach bucket and sacrificed it to plant that seed.”
The seed grew, and for nearly two years, Karen nurtured her little tree. When the family moved to her grandparents’ home with a garden, she took her tree along and planted it. The tree flourished and after six years began to produce fruit. Her family would move again just as the tree produced its first loquats.
“My mom took the fruit from that tree to our next home and planted three seeds,” she says. “One sprouted, and we had a tree in that garden.”
It was bittersweet when Karen later returned to both of her past homes only to learn that her first two loquat trees were gone.
“But there was a loquat tree a few houses down,” she says. “I’m sure the birds carried the seed, and it grew there.”
Karen moved to the United States in 1983, living in Columbia for a time. She now lives with her youngest daughter in downtown Aiken. She loves the area for its warmer climate and the fact that Aiken has a Citywide Arboretum, a 4-mile radius in the downtown area with a diverse collection of rare species of trees. During a trip to an area nursery last September, Karen came across a loquat tree and just knew she had to have it.
“That was such a special treat for me,” she says, “and I recognized it the moment I saw it. I didn’t care what it cost.”
One of the features of the tree that attracts Karen to it is not necessarily the fruit itself but the color variations in the leaves. Loquat trees are known for their dark glossy color on the top side of the leaf and fuzzy feature underneath.
“The colors remind me of an avocado,” she says, “with the new growth the same color as the inside of an avocado and the old growth darker like the skin.”
She also appreciates that the tree is evergreen, giving her something to brighten the bleak winter landscape, noting it did not drop a single leaf during the past chilly months.
Loquat trees will thrive in USDA plant hardiness zones 8 to 10. Known as a small to average size tree, they usually will grow 10 to 15 feet tall. At more than 30 feet in height, Byron’s tree is at the top of its class.
“Mine seems to be headed to the heavens,” Byron says. “I honestly don’t do that much to it. I’ll occasionally talk to it when I pass by and give it a good drink of water.”
And he claims the tree has a personality of its own — a tree with attitude as he describes it, putting on a display during the winter months when everything else is brown and drab. “My tree is much bigger than the one my grandfather had,” he says.
Mature loquat trees can withstand temperatures as low as 10 degrees F, but flowers and fruits will not survive temperatures below 27 degrees F. They will tolerate partial shade but prefer full sun and well-drained soil. Smaller varieties can be grown in containers, but it is best to avoid placing them near patios and sidewalks as the fruit can be quite messy if it drops from the tree.
At about 3 to 4 years old, loquat trees will begin bearing fruit. Buds form in late fall or early winter, eventually pushing out white panicles of fragrant flowers. Some varieties are self-pollinating while others rely on Mother Nature’s helpers.
“The bees will come from everywhere, covering the tree,” says Byron, “You can hear all the buzzing.”
The fruit, known as a pome, forms in small oval clusters, with yellow, orange, even red-toned skin that, if left to ripen long enough, will have a sweet, citrusy flavor. Let the fruit ripen on the tree since loquat fruit does not ripen much after being picked. Thus, it will have a rather tart taste if plucked from the tree too soon.
“The fruit is very sweet,” according to Byron. “If you mash it up, the nearest thing I can describe is that it tastes like honey.”
Varieties of loquat include ‘Big Jim’ — a pale orange fruit with a slightly tart flavor; ‘Early Red’ — a medium to large size fruit that ripens in late winter; ‘Strawberry’ — reminiscent of strawberries, as the name indicates; and ‘Champagne’ — a fruit with deep yellow skin and translucent white flesh. Many other varieties are also available.
As with all of his plants, Byron is generous in sharing the fruit with neighbors and family. Loquats can be peeled and eaten fresh and are a tasty addition to fruit salad. The fruit can also be preserved in jellies and jams. Byron hopes the squirrels will let him enjoy the fruit of his loquat tree this year as he expects a plentiful bounty following a relatively mild winter.
Karen values the tree not so much for its fruit but for the recollections it brings from days gone by. “I was so happy to find that tree. Even if it never produces fruit, it’s such a beautiful tree,” she says. “It was my first experience in gardening and brings back such fond memories.”
A Quick Guide to Growing Loquat Trees
Climate: Hardiness Zones 8 to 10
Height: 10 to 15 feet average
Sun: Full sun to partial shade
Spacing: 15 feet or more apart
Lowest temperature: 10 degrees F
Soil: Well-draining, evenly moist
Fruiting: Remove half the immature fruits when they reach one-half inch diameter to improve size of remaining fruit
Pruning: After harvest
Problems: Few because they are disease resistant