Monday, March 11, 2013

A botanical puzzle...

March 3, 2013

Here’s a question for you:  What tasty, nutritious and versatile fruit grows extensively in Central Florida, produces abundant crops without needing pesticides but is not available fresh in any grocery, specialty store or farmer’s market? 

Need a clue?  There’s a good chance you have this fruit growing in your own yard or, at the very least, in your neighborhood.  It can even be found as part of the landscaping surrounding many businesses you frequent. 

If you guessed, loquat, you’re correct!  Loquats are one of the least appreciated yet most widely planted trees in Southern landscapes.

The lovely loquat...although it rhymes with kumquat, loquats and kumquats are completely unrelated plants
Botanically named Eriobotrya japonica, the loquat is a member of the Rosacaea family, a broad group of plants that includes apples, raspberries and strawberries among others.  Native to southeastern China, the loquat likes a temperate or semi-tropical climate.  It grows in Asia, Hawaii, the Mid-East and South America as well as here in Florida.  Some of its other common names include Japanese medlar, Japanese plum, Chinese plum or pipa. 

If you have a loquat in your yard, it was probably installed for its ornamental qualities rather than for its ability to provide an early season harvest of fruit. 

The loquat is a medium size evergreen tree with an attractive rounded shade-providing shape.  Its dark green leaves are thick, stiff and glossy.  In winter, when few plants are flowering, its white blossoms produce a subtle sweetness attractive to bees and other pollinators.  In Central Florida from January to March, loquat trees are covered with clusters of small apricot-colored fruit, which provide an attractive contrast to the dark green, glossy leaves.

Bright green leathery leaves and fragrant white flowers add to a loquat's appeal as a landscape plant

There’s no doubt loquats make a striking addition to a yard and their  size (less than 30’ tall) enables them to fit into compact spaces but gosh, if you’re going to have them in your yard, why not nosh on the fruit as well?  I’m amazed by how few people take advantage of this abundant source of free food.

The one-inch-long ovoid fruit consists of an apricot-colored skin with a texture similar to that of a scuppernong or a concord grape.  The skin covers lighter colored flesh that surrounds one or more large, dark-colored seeds.  Because the inedible seeds take up so much space, there’s not much to eat in individual loquats.  But in my mind, that’s no reason to be ignored.  Many other fruit (think: cherries, seeded grapes…) also have multiple seeds or large pits yet we consume enthusiastically.

Inside each loquat is one or more large, brown seed

In most other parts of the world, loquat’s edible qualities earn far more appreciation than they do in the United States.  In Pakistan, the less ripe, sourer fruits are perfect for chutney or sauce, while in Japan, the ripe fruit is often made into jams, jellies or preserved by canning.  Some people turn the versatile loquat into wine while the more dessert-oriented create loquat pies, cakes or muffins.

Loquat wine is popular in many Asian countries

My own culinary propensity is of a ‘pick-n-pop’ nature.  I stand by a tree, pick as many ripe loquats with my right hand as I can fit into my left hand then proceed to pop each individual loquat into my mouth, one after the other, spitting out seeds as I go.  I don’t bother to peel off the skin as my daughter does when she prepares loquats for her kids, nor do I worry about blemishes on the skin like my far more meticulous husband does.  I simply pick-n-pop…savoring the moment. 

For those of you not yet aware, the sweet taste of Central Florida spring is right outside your door.  If you don’t have a loquat tree growing in your own yard, stop by a neighbor’s to ask if you can pick a few fruit off their tree.  Most people will be surprised to discover that the plant they thought of only as a pretty provider of shade is also a source of sweet, tasty and free-for-the-picking fruit.

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