The loquat tree, Eriobotrya japonica, is an evergreen broad leaf tree or shrub originally native to south-central China, being most famous for its sweet, succulent fruit. Through the years it has been established in subtropical to southern temperate regions across the world and has naturalized in many places. It’s species epithet, japonica, is in truth a misnomer since it was first encountered by a westerner, the botanist Thunberg, in that country. Regardless, the plant has gained notoriety across the globe as an ornamental tree, for its fruit products, as tea (loquat leaf tea) and to a lesser extent, as a medicinal herb.
Eriobotrya japonica is a tree or large shrub of low subtropical mountain forests, attaining a maximum height of about 10 meters. Usually single stemmed, the bark is grey-brown, with smaller branches typically covered in a rusty to grey colored “wool” (a condition known as tomentose).
The broad crown is densely branched and rounded in form. The tree’s rigid, evergreen leaves are simple, broad, serrated, and deeply veined, each growing from 10-25 centimeters long. New leaves are fully tomentose and light green. They turn dark green and shiny as they age, but remain tomentose on their undersides when mature.
The flowers are borne in loose to tight clusters from late fall into early winter, and are quite aromatic. They are small, no more than 2 centimeters across, with five white petals surrounding a yellow center. The buds as well are tomentose. The flowers are pollinated in the depths of the winter months, and by spring mature into clusters of simple, round and slightly elongated fruits, brilliant orange in color and typically no more than 5 centimeters in length. These as well are have a slight fuzz to the outer skin, but inside are fleshy, juicy and sweet. Loquat seeds, usually numbering 2-4 per fruit (though there can be up to 10), account for much of the fruit’s mass, perhaps up to one third of their total weight.
The loquat is originally native to subtropical forests of southeastern Sichuan and adjacent areas of Hubei Province in south-central China. Since ancient times it has been cultivated over much of southern China, Indochina, Taiwan, and Japan. Readily spreading from seed, it naturalized in these same areas centuries ago, effectively becoming part of the native flora. In more recent years it has been naturalized throughout the world in appropriate climates stretching from India to the Middle East, throughout the Mediterranean region, parts of eastern and southern Africa, the southern USA, throughout Central America and into South America (where it grows in the cooler highlands), Australia, New Zealand, and numerous island chains including Hawaii, Bermuda, and Réunion.
This species is considered an invasive weed in eastern Australia (Queensland and New South Wales), throughout the southern USA, New Zealand, South Africa and on many islands throughout the world (for example, Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island, Easter Island, The Galapagos, Hawaii, Réunion and Tonga).
E. japonica probably was first cultivated for its fruit. Like many other fruit trees, typical wild forms do not usually produce desirable fruit, so selective breeding was needed. Loquat trees are thought to have been cultivated in China for over a thousand years. This tree (known as biwa in Japanese) made its appearance as a cultivated plant during the late Edo Period in Japan (1603-1868), though wild forms with undesirable fruit likely had been brought centuries earlier. Loquats were first cultivated in Europe as early as the 1700’s. It is believed that Chinese immigrants brought the tree to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1700’s.
Continue reading “The loquat tree, Eriobotrya japonica, the Japanese biwa fruit tree”