Strolling around Madison Park is always a horticultural treasure hunt. This week I struck a payload. Midway down the block on 41st Avenue East, east side, up a bit from the sidewalk and standing before a pristine early 20th century house, I stopped, blinked and muttered “Wow! Gold!”
It was a robust Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica and among its large, leathery and deeply veined leaves were clusters of ping-pong ball sized fruits in 24-karat yellow.
Something of a staple in the gardens of California, this tree is uncommon in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, my attempt at growing one more than 30 years ago ended in winter-kill.
But the plant you’ll see here went into the ground as a 4-foot-tall sapling in 2012, and has been going strong since. It even survived our February snow without a sign of broken branches or freeze burn on its evergreen leaves. The owner did go out and shake the snow from the limbs, just as a fastidious gardener would do with Magnolia grandiflora and other broad-leafed evergreens. The branches of loquat can be tender, especially in youth.
Native to China and Japan, this tree can reach 15 to 30 feet in height, with an equal spread. To assure sturdy branches that don’t stretch for light, give it a location where it will get a good half-day or more of direct sun exposure. Drainage is also important. Up on a bank, the one in the photograph never has its roots standing in water or even soggy soil. In fact, wet winter roots, not the cold, is what I suspect may have been what did in the plant I tried to grow.
The stout leaves can be 6-12 inches long, deep green on top, with a woolly rust-colored undersurface. Before the plum-like loquats set and begin to mature, the plant blooms. Small white flowers appear, unremarkable but fragrant. The fruits, which contain a large central seed, are quite tasty, with a flavor between guava and pineapple, and a texture firmer but reminiscent of mango.
Eriobotrya japonica does perfectly well in our acid soil. The owners of this tree top dress it annually with compost. It was given ample summer irrigation for the first several years after planting and until it was established. It fits nicely as a focal point in a garden, which is designed to echo sub-tropical New Zealand. Plus, there is an added bonus to these large and abundant leaves. In a stiff summer breeze, they catch the wind and rustle, bringing both movement and a soothing resonance to the garden.
A loquat will not be easy to find in nurseries. You may have to ask for a special order. Currently, Monrovia Nursery, headquartered in Azusa, California, and Dayton, Oregon, sells plants for $24.99, with free shipping, according to their website.
Given you have the space and the right exposure, this tree is worth growing. Its statuesque form, handsome foliage and edible fruit, each, alone, makes it garden worthy. Imagine the fun of surprising a house guest with three of these exotic plump fruits at breakfast or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream after dinner. Your guest will squeal in amazement, and you’ll chatter with pride. So luscious is loquat, it will make you loquacious (sorry, I couldn’t resist). But do give this plant a try.