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The Global Garden: A little love for the loquat

March 13, 2012 |  3:37 pm

LoquatThe 20-foot-high tree shaded a walkway with a tropical-looking canopy full of yellow orbs. Nobody ever bothered to harvest it, so fallen fruit littered the asphalt.

The neglected tree was a loquat, part of a community garden at Woodrow Wilson High School in L.A.'s El Sereno neighborhood. The tree is fast growing and drought tolerant, with dense foliage that can be pruned or espaliered to create a green wall. So useful is the loquat as an evergreen ornamental that many people don't realize the clusters of fruit are actually edible.

The fruit doesn't ripen off the tree and is easily bruised, all making the harvesting process labor intensive and not attractive for commercial growers. Birds, however, love them. As do people in the know.

At Papaya Tree Nursery in Granada Hills, Alex Hartounian was looking for a variety of loquat called Big Jim, known for producing large, juicy fruit that taste like pear. It was to be a gift for his father-in-law, an avid gardener.

“Some people even eat the skin,” he said. “I’ve been looking for this for a long time, but I didn’t know the name in English.”

“Armenians love loquat,” he said. “When you see a combination of grape, pomegranate and loquat growing together in a garden, you know probably an Armenian is living there.”

Loquat canopyThe loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) actually originated in southeastern China, an early domesticated fruit once reserved for Chinese royalty. It spread to Japan around AD 700 and was cultivated intensely. The Japanese name biwa was derived from its Mandarin name, pi-pa. It’s thought that Chinese immigrants brought loquat to California, and for a while it was popular among backyard growers.

Jim Lee and his loquat treesToday, devotees include Jim Lee, right, a retired engineer, who has 19 loquat trees growing in front of his house in Echo Park. Some locals call the dead-end street Loquat Lane.

Loquat is common in China, he said, pulling down a cluster of yellow-orange fruit, a few showing signs of bird beaks. The fruit are ripening early, he said. “Normally it’s ripe between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but this year we didn’t have much rain. That’s why they are so small. Normally they are twice this size.”

Lee said he planted the trees 15 to 20 years ago, and when they were younger, he would get more than 300 pounds of fruit per tree. Family and friends came over to enjoy the harvest before the birds got to it. Fruit must be picked by hand, and after a few days it will begin to spoil.

“You cannot keep it too long," he said. "That’s why they don’t sell it in the market.”

A loquat will grow from seed, he said. The first harvest will come in three or four years. Then the loquat can be used in baking, jams and compotes. Lee's preference? Peeled fruit, fresh off the tree.

-- Jeff Spurrier

The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through what it plants, appears Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

Alex and Sevana Hartounian shop for a loquat
Alex and Sevana Hartounian shop for a loquat at Papaya Tree Nursery in Granada Hills.


Loquat Eric
The Hartounians' son, Eric, approves. The loquat and the dragon fruit are favorites.


Loquat fruit
Some of Lee's fruit, smaller this year because of the scant rain.


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Photos: Ann Summa