As the temperatures started to warm up here in Charleston last month, there was one tree that began to stick out as I wandered around the downtown streets, a slightly tropical-looking tree that is striking in appearance and overflowing with orange fruit.
Not to be confused, as many are, with the kumquat from the citrus family, this is the often-overlooked loquat.
When it comes to fruit trees, there aren't many that can rival the loquat in terms of production and adaptability. The loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), also known as a Japanese Plum, is a beautiful flowering tree from the rose family. A fruit tree native to eastern Asia, the loquat does remarkably well in temperate climates.
The loquat is a small, evergreen tree that can handle the summer heat of the Lowcountry but surprisingly also can handle the cold winters. It blooms in the late fall to early winter. And the blooms, though not super showy, are quite fragrant and pleasant to smell in any landscape. Then it slowly sets fruit for the late spring. With an untimely frost, the fruit production can be affected but this does not usually happen. A well-established, healthy tree can average 100 pounds of fruit per season.
The fruit has a unique flavor that some would describe as being a mix between a plum and a mango with a hint of cherry. As it turns from light yellow to orange, you know the fruit is ready. It is used in making jellies and in finer cuisine. The fruit is surprisingly versatile. Unfortunately, it bruises easily and travels poorly, meaning anytime one enjoys a loquat, it is most likely local.
The loquat has been in the nursery trade for quite some time as it makes an excellent architectural plant, as one would note walking through the streets of Charleston. The flowers offer an attractive fragrance when most trees are going dormant. The loquat is exceptionally drought-tolerant and the trees are afflicted with few pests. It can handle living in the full sun or even under some slight shade. Just like the fruit, the loquat also is a versatile specimen in many landscapes.
As the fruit is ready to be picked, by people and wildlife alike, many have noticed that there is some affliction that ails their loquats. There is usually sap oozing from the trunk that has turned black, giving it the appearance that it was burned. The leaves have turned brown but not fallen, giving the limb the famous shepherds crook, and spreading to kill the entire limb. Many would note that it is comparable to what happens to certain pears. This is the disease known as "fire blight."
As mentioned before, there are very few reported pests that affect the loquat, making it ideal for the casual gardener. But, there is one pest that can take down a loquat in a few years. Fire blight is caused by the bacteria Erwinia amylovora, which is spread in a number of different vectors. The bacterial infection only needs to find an opening, the most common being the flower. Usually spread by some insect that has encountered the bacteria, the disease can enter and remain almost dormant until the next growing season.
The disease also can spread through the wind, entering by way of damages to the bark. And as the bacterial disease thrives in warmer weather, it moves quickly as the onset of summer approaches.
Fire blight is a well-known disease among apple and peach growers as the disease only affects plants in the rose family. There are scarcely few ways to treat the disease, and little to do to prevent it. There is not an easy fix for the average homeowner and it seems the disease is spreading as more and more people are reporting loquat decline.
The most effective solution is to remove the affected foliage once the disease is spotted, which is usually late spring or early summer. Be careful to constantly clean the pruning tools in between cuts as this will help alleviate the spread. Also avoid using any fertilizers as this will only accelerate the disease's spread.
There is still hope for the loquat, as they are resilient plants. With the removal of affected limbs and proper methods of control, loquats can usually continue to thrive. But always keep in mind that the pathogen may still be present, and the best way avoid losing the tree is by being vigilant.