Loquat trees are hard to grow – but it’s worth a go

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I HAD a question in my inbox the other day that I don’t remember ever being asked before, not even on the radio, where curious things turned up from time to time, especially in my days with BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time.

Wendy wanted to know how to look after a loquat which a friend had grown from seed and given to her.

If you want to buy one, you are more likely to find it in catalogues under its botanical name – Eriobotrya japonica – or sometimes under its other common names of Japanese medlar, Japanese loquat, Japanese plum, or nispero.

There is a list of suppliers in the RHS Plant Finder, but if you can get hold of the orange fruit, which you can sometimes find in specialist supermarkets and ethnic shops, the large seeds germinate easily, although if you happen to grow a plant in this country, it rarely produces fruit, except in very mild areas and in hot summers.

The loquat originally came from central and southern China, although it has been grown in Japan for more than 1,000 years and is widely cultivated in the Mediterranean region, southern parts of the USA and the Far East.

From this, Wendy will gather that it isn’t the hardiest of trees, and is likely to be killed off or severely damaged in the sort of low temperature we experienced round here over one night last winter.

Given the right conditions, however, it makes a large shrub or small, bushy tree, with white, fragrant flowers in autumn and early winter, after which the orange or yellow fruits form and are ready for eating the following spring.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to grow the loquat in a frost-free greenhouse or conservatory.

It is an attractive plant, with large, glossy, veined leaves that are covered with a brown felt on the undersides, and for this reason alone is worth cultivating, although, given the winters we’ve experienced round here this last couple of years, I would be inclined to grow it in a pot on a sunny patio in summer and either move it into a cool, sunny room or give it some outdoor protection from November to March – a couple of layers of fleece should be adequate if you’re not bothered about flowers and fruit.

The seeds and stones of many similar tropical and sub-tropical fruits, like the avocado, mango, date, guava and lychee, germinate readily with no more demanding conditions than the kitchen windowsill.

While most of them, left to their own devices, get far too large for even the largest conservatory, some will cut back successfully and can also be made into bonsai specimens with careful potting and pruning.

It’s certainly worth a try.