Photo by Tetsuya Odaka
MANY AUGUSTA GARDNERS can boast at least one fruit tree in their landscape or garden. Apple, peach, pear, plum or fig. They are all popular and lovingly cultivated and yield fruit that is proudly incorporated into recipes throughout the spring and summer months.
But there is a less well-known, equally desirable fruit tree that is often overlooked—the loquat. In fact many people in our region of the South may not even realize that the loquat is a fruit tree. Compact, easy to grow and a lovely addition to the landscape, this attractive evergreen will indeed bear edible fruit when planted in the right spot.
Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), also known as Japanese plum, is considered something of a tropical tree. Widely popular in Florida, it doesn’t fruit well in Augusta unless planted in an area that is protected by some type of structure or building. But fruit aside, the loquat is still an attractive ornamental, with large, glossy green leaves, that provides big impact in your landscape or garden.
A native of China, loquat has a symmetrical grow pattern when planted in an open space. It has a compact, dense crown that can attain a height of 25 feet and a spread of 15 to 20 feet. The leaves are glossy, dark green above, and whitish to grayish brown underneath, all of which are characteristics that make it an excellent specimen or accent tree in the home landscape.
Numerous varieties of loquat have been developed over the years of which several are popularly grown in south Florida. Since the fruit has never achieved commercial status in the United States, most if not all loquats available for sale at local nurseries are seedling trees, which means they were started from seed. Consequently, like most seedling fruit trees, the fruit quality is highly variable among individual loquats typically purchased in the Augusta area with fruit that is sweet but typically small.
A well-established loquat tree can withstand temperatures of 10 degrees without serious injury, but both flowers and fruit are killed at temperatures below about 27 degrees.
Loquats are well-adapted to virtually all soils in the Augusta area as long as they have good internal drainage. They are also tolerant of dry conditions, although leaf tip burn can occur during hot, dry periods. They tolerate all soil pH, from extremely to mildly acidic, but the ideal range is 5.5 to 6.5. Weed control is important, as they do not compete well with weeds and turfgrass. So be sure to kill all vegetation or grass before you plant and put down mulch two to three feet out from the base of the tree.
If you are hoping to get fruit, from your loquat, plant them on the south or southeast side of your house to provide maximum cold protection. If fruit isn’t a goal, they can be planted anywhere you like.
Fertilize loquat the first year only after new growth starts. In the absence of a soil test, use a 10-10-10 or something close. Many times you can use whatever you fertilize the lawn with, as long as it doesn’t contain any weed killer. Also avoid fertilizers that contain more than 21 percent nitrogen.
A young tree should receive about one cup of fertilizer its first year, two cups the second, three in its third year and so on until you reach a maximum of 12 cups. For optimal results, the fertilizer should be split into three annual applications during March, May and September. Just scatter it on the ground from the base out to the canopy and water it in or wait for rainfall. If you are not concerned about fruit production, you could eliminate most, if not all, of the fertilizer applications.
Loquats normally don’t require pruning as the tree establishes its natural shape. If you need to prune to keep it in bounds, it is probably planted in the wrong spot.
The white, yellow or
orange fruit can vary from sweet to tangy, depending on the tree, with a sort
of plum-like flavor.
You should encounter very few pest problems with loquat, which is another characteristic that makes it a highly desirable tree. The most serious problem is that of fire blight, the same disease that affects fruiting pears, ornamental pears (including Bradford pears), pyracantha and any plant in the Rosaceae family. Twig tips appear as if they were scorched by fire or damaged by frost and may be randomly distributed throughout the tree. Twigs blacken as the disease progresses downward toward larger stems and affected leaves tend to cling to the branches. Twig tips normally develop a shepherd’s crook, which is very useful in diagnosing the disease. While antibiotic treatment for fire blight is effective, the simplest course of action is to prune out the affected branches.
So if you're looking for an attractive compact evergreen tree to add interest to your landscape, low-maintenance loquats are a great choice. And if you plant them in the right spot you may even reap the bonus of fruit.
Sid Mullis is an Augusta-Richmond County extension agent and a regular contributor to Augusta Magazine.