Election Section

In Praise of Loquats, at the Close of the Season By RON SULLIVAN Special to the Planet

Tuesday August 02, 2005

Now that they’re bare of fruit, it’s safe to talk about the handful of loquat trees, Eriobotrya japonica, on the streets of Berkeley. I’ll admit I’m a bit paranoid on this matter. I used to live with a pair of them, planted by the landlord in the curb strip where we rented on Derby Street for years. One of them had bad bark scarring when we moved there and subsequently died when a strong wind snapped it in two.  

The unfortunate tree had been loved, or at least lusted after, to death. Over the years it had been the habit of passing children to snatch fruit from the tree—sometimes even climbing the poor spindly thing to do so—and they weren’t particularly careful or kind when doing so. Usually they grabbed a whole cluster and ripped it off. This tore the bark off the branch the fruit hung from, and, repeated over some years, gave the tree some proportionately huge bark injuries. 

A tree wears its vital organs just under its skin. Bark injuries in a tree are not much like skin injuries in an animal; they’re more like gut wounds. They can screw up the flow of water, minerals and nutrients between roots and leaves, and admit insects and disease organisms. The tree weakens, the wood rots, and one day a random breeze finishes it off. Crash! 

That’s what happened on Derby Street. When the loquat blew over, it revealed that it had been struggling along for years on less than half of its rightful vital systems. There was nothing at all in its center, a hollow where support wood should have been (imagine living without half your bones.) There was a huge band of dead cambium around half of the trunk’s circumference. It was a mark of valor that the tree had stood for as long as it had. 

In a fit of arboristic anger and grief for the tree, whom I’d liked, I sawed off the stump to about three feet off the ground to display the results of its careless treatment. I’m sure that was a quixotic gesture, though I bored some few passers-by with explications. Eventually I took the whole thing out and planted an olive, which was still standing the last time I looked. It wasn’t authorized, but that stretch of Derby is weirdly tree-poor, and I’m not apologizing. 

The other pity about this story is that loquats are rare, not so much on the streets as in the store, at least in the United States. (I hear they’re easier to find in the Mediterranean, Central America, and of course Asia, where the tree originated.) I rarely see them, even at the Farmers’ Market or the Berkeley Bowl, and that’s too bad; they’re tasty and different.  

The fruit most resembles apricots but is less mealy, with a bit of tang and a slight flower scent. The seeds take up more space within the fruit than the average apricot’s: three to five of them, brown and tucked together like puzzle pieces. The skin is very slightly fuzzy; orange, yellow, or white, depending on the cultivar.  

One great thing about it is that it appears so early in the year—March to June, about the time when we’re thinking with longing of summer stone fruits, and well ahead of local ripe peaches, plums, and apricots. 

It doesn’t travel well, though; it bruises easily, which is why it’s so scarce commercially. But the individual trees are generous, and you can have lots of fruit with very little effort—I never did feed that tree, and what water it got was to roots it had under my garden, on the other side of the sidewalk. Otherwise, like most street trees, its roots were completely covered by pavement.  

If by good luck you have a surfeit of loquats, try poaching them lightly and putting them up in syrup or freezing them. Just plunking them in the fridge erases some of the subtle flavor notes. But I think I’d just eat them out of hand. Or trade with neighbors for some of their produce—so early in summer, you’re in little danger of being avalanched with zucchini in return.?