Loquats originally came to us, as many tropical fruits have, from China. They are a popular fruit all over the Orient, and around the Mediterranean Basin where they are considered a harbinger of spring, ripening before all other summer fruits. In the United States, only certain pockets of California and Florida provide just the right climate for the hardy loquat to flourish, and one of those areas is North County.
Loquat trees, sometimes called Japanese plum, are often grown as ornamentals for their lush, dark green foliage. The drought-tolerant trees can grow as tall as 25 feet, making them ideal for providing shade. They can also be trained, with some patience, into creative espaliers. Although they are plentiful, loquats haven't yet attained widespread commercial popularity among American consumers. Often, the smooth orange fruit--the size and color of a ripe apricot--is left to rot on the tree and splatters to the ground. For this reason, loquat trees are sometimes considered a nuisance.
But just talk to Linda Sadon, a grower from Valley Center, who can't keep up with the demand for her loquats at local farmer's markets.
"Each loquat tree has its own particular flavor," she said, leading the way through her orchard for a sampling. Some trees Sadon grew from seed, while others were grafted. "Some taste like sweet-tart candy, and kids just love them," she said.
She reaches for a cluster of orange fruit hidden among the thick leaves. The unblemished loquats taste slightly tart to the tongue and sport large, black seeds in the center. The juicy bite brings to mind the flavor of a soft, yet unripened apricot. Linda reaches for another fruit, this one with a blemished skin.
"The ones with blemishes taste sweeter," she said, "but we can't market them that way because people won't buy them." Experts look for these spots, however, and for fruit that feels soft to the touch.
The Sadon family, longtime Valley Center residents, began growing loquats a decade ago, mainly for their own use. Harvests proved so prolific that they were soon supplying friends and neighbors with the fruit. They then planted several varieties and were soon picking enough baskets to take to market.
"Customers tell us loquats often bring back memories of their childhood," Sadon said, laughing as she pulled down the fruit-filled limbs of a 3-year-old tree.
She often has to compete for ripe loquats with the birds. Branches hang all the way to the ground, laden with small, grape-like clusters. Sadon splits a loquat open, pointing to its pale flesh. The fruit ripens at different times on the same tree, depending on exposure to the sun, Sadon explained, offering a visitor another sample. The refreshing and juicy bite yields a sweet taste touched with a hint of tartness.
The Jewett family, who grow loquats in their Fallbrook orchard, also have to keep ahead of the birds. "They always pick the sweetest fruit!" said Howard Jewett with a laugh.
Some of Jewett's loquats get as big as golf balls. He attributes this to drip irrigation, and to fertilizing.
"They respond to nurturing, although they don't require lots of attention," Jewett said.
They have a tendency to stay small if they are neglected, he said. Jewett's display at local farmer's markets testifies to the tender loving care he bestows on his trees. Several varieties of loquats overflow from pint baskets.
Loquats should be left to turn soft and ripen on the tree before they are picked. If picked when almost mature, they will ripen and sweeten on the shelf. They can be eaten out of hand, preserved in syrup or used as a colorful addition to fruit salads.
Where to find loquats:
Don and Linda Sadon, Sadon Ranch, Valley Center. Sell at Vista and Escondido farmer's markets. Loquats: 50 cents a basket. Will pick to order with advance notice. 749-3658.
Howard Jewett, 3062 Sunmac Road, Fallbrook. Sell at Vista Farmer's Market on Saturday, and Wednesday morning market across from North County Fair in Escondido. 50 cents a basket. (619) 723-0845.