The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is a species of flowering plant in the family Rosaceae, native to south-central China. It is a large evergreen shrub or small tree, grown commercially for its yellow fruit, and also cultivated as an ornamental plant.
Eriobotrya japonica is a large evergreen shrub or small tree, with a rounded crown, short trunk and woolly new twigs. The tree can grow to 5–10 metres (16–33 ft) tall, but is often smaller, about 3–4 metres (10–13 ft). The leaves are alternate, simple, 10–25 centimetres (4–10 in) long, dark green, tough and leathery in texture, with a serrated margin, and densely velvety-hairy below with thick yellow-brown pubescence; the young leaves are also densely pubescent above, but this soon rubs off.
Loquats are unusual among fruit trees in that the flowers appear in the autumn or early winter, and the fruits are ripe in late winter or early spring. The flowers are 2 cm (1 in) in diameter, white, with five petals, and produced in stiff panicles of three to ten flowers. The flowers have a sweet, heady aroma that can be smelled from a distance.
Loquat fruits, growing in clusters, are oval, rounded or pear-shaped, 3–5 centimetres (1–2 in) long, with a smooth or downy, yellow or orange, sometimes red-blushed skin. The succulent, tangy flesh is white, yellow or orange and sweet to subacid or acid, depending on the cultivar.
Each fruit contains from one to ten ovules, with three to five being most common. A variable number of the ovules mature into large brown seeds. The skin, though thin, can be peeled off manually if the fruit is ripe. In Egypt varieties with sweeter fruits and fewer seeds are often grafted on inferior quality specimens.
The fruits are the sweetest when soft and orange. The flavour is a mixture of peach, citrus and mild mango.
The loquat is originally from China, where related species can be found growing in the wild. It was introduced into Japan and became naturalised there in very early times; it has been cultivated there for over 1,000 years. It has also become naturalised in Afghanistan, Australia, Bermuda, Chile, Kenya, India, Iraq, South Africa, the whole Mediterranean Basin, Pakistan, New Zealand, Réunion, Tonga, Central America, Mexico, South America and in warmer parts of the United States (Hawaii, California, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, southern Georgia and Florida). Chinese immigrants are presumed to have carried the loquat to Hawaii.
The loquat was often mentioned in ancient Chinese literature, such as the poems of Li Bai. In Portuguese literature, it is mentioned since before the Age of Discovery.
Over 800 loquat cultivars exist in Asia. Self-fertile variants include the 'Gold Nugget' and 'Mogi' cultivars. The loquat is easy to grow in subtropical to mild temperate climates where it is often primarily grown as an ornamental plant, especially for its sweet-scented flowers, and secondarily for its delicious fruit. The boldly textured foliage adds a tropical look to gardens, contrasting well with many other plants. It is popular in the American South as an ornamental plant for its blossoms, though winter frosts rarely allow the flowers to survive and bear fruit the following spring.
There are many named cultivars, with orange or white flesh. Some cultivars are intended for home-growing, where the flowers open gradually, and thus the fruit also ripens gradually, compared to the commercially grown species where the flowers open almost simultaneously, and the whole tree's fruit also ripens together.
Japan is the leading producer of loquats followed by Israel and then Brazil.
In temperate climates it is grown as an ornamental with winter protection, as the fruits seldom ripen to an edible state. In the United Kingdom, it has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.
In the highland parts of Central America, the loquat has become naturalized, and is often found growing wild in areas that have been disturbed but abandoned, its seeds having been dispersed by birds. Below 1000 meters, the fruit remains inedible for its high acidity, but above it, the wild fruit is appreciated and much harvested for its sweet, fruity flavor. It is occasionally planted for living fenceposts, as the tree is long-lived, not much subject to disease, and the wood is hard and durable. Good quality logs are much sought-after by furniture makers in Central America, who prize its hardness and durability.
In the US, the loquat tree is hardy only in USDA zones 8 and above, and will flower only where winter temperatures do not fall below 30 °F (−1 °C). In such areas, the tree flowers in autumn and the fruit ripens in late winter.