Ask Elizabeth Woodfield about loquats and, with a dreamy smile, she'll recall climbing loquat trees on her family's Santa Barbara farm and gorging on the sweet-tart fruit, like little orange pears.
On the other hand, my Aunt Elly had loquats in her Studio City backyard for 34 years and never knew they were edible.
So far have loquats fallen nowadays that they're mostly ignored or, worse, confused with kumquats. A century ago, however, Southern California led the world in developing loquats. A spiritualist commune notorious for unusual sex practices promoted their consumption, and loquat boosters predicted that the fruit would overtake oranges in popularity.
A member of the pome fruit family--a cousin to apples, pears and quinces--the loquat looks more like an offbeat apricot: bright orange to yellow-gold, round, oval or pear-shaped, from one to three inches long. The thin skin is slightly downy, tougher than a peach's and sometimes freckled with red.
The flesh, which can be deep orange, yellow or creamy white, is juicy and tender yet firm, and there are several glossy brown seeds at the center. The flavor most resembles cherry with floral overtones, though some tasters detect apple, plum and grape.
The loquat's glory is its precocious season, starting in March or April, weeks before the first cherries and peaches. This year, cold weather in early spring delayed the harvest, which is peaking now and will extend into June.
Botanists believe that loquats originated in the Dadu River Valley of western Sichuan, where wild forms abound. The Chinese have cultivated the fruit for more than 2,000 years, calling it lu-kwyit, or "reed orange," in Cantonese (the name of the unrelated kumquat means "golden orange"). In Mandarin, the loquat's name, pipa, sounds like that of the rather loquat-shaped Chinese lute.
The Japanese, who call it biwa, adopted the fruit more than 1,000 years ago and have perfected its cultivation. In the late 18th century, Europeans brought loquat plants home from Japan for use as ornamentals, calling these evergreen trees with dark glossy leaves Japanese medlars.
Whatever their name, loquats spread to many subtropical regions in the 19th century: India, Australia, South and Central America, much of the Mediterranean basin and the southern United States. Agricultural historians think traders brought the pits to California directly from Japan after the opening of trade with that country in 1851, though the loquat trees grown from seed usually bore inferior fruit--small and seedy with scanty flesh.
In the early years, a few Los Angeles-area growers sent mini-loquats to San Francisco markets, mostly for Asian immigrants. Only in the 1880s and 1890s, when nurseries introduced grafted varieties (both imported from Japan and selected by growers from their larger-fruited seedlings), did the general public come to appreciate loquats.
Cultivation centered on the coastal strip from Santa Barbara to San Diego, particularly in Orange County, where the mild climate provides just enough heat in spring to ripen loquats for a lucrative early market. (Inland and further north, autumn frosts often destroy the young fruits and late maturity exposes the crop to ruinous sunburn.)
In the 1880s, an eccentric vegetarian colony called the Societas Fraterna pioneered growing loquats on a 24-acre property in what is now Placentia, along with many other fruits, nuts and vegetables--which they consumed raw, believing that cooking destroyed the spiritual essence of food. The cult lived in a huge mansion with round, oval and S-shaped rooms, because members thought the spirits that guided them didn't like corners.
The group decided which members should have sex together, arousing the neighbors' suspicions of even more outlandish practices. That didn't stop people from reaching through the fence to snatch giant loquats or from buying produce at the mansion, making it perhaps California's first health food store.
One of the leaders, Walter Lockwood, styled himself Thales after the Greek philosopher and gave this name to the commune's large, orange-fleshed loquat variety, which is still popular today, though now it is usually known as Gold Nugget.
The real father of the California loquat industry, however, was Charles P. Taft, who settled near the town of Orange in 1883. Selecting seedlings for size, flavor, color and shipping quality, he introduced his first variety, the white-fleshed Advance, in 1897.
In a series of articles in local papers, he boasted that loquats kept like lemons and brought high prices. Impressed, the Los Angeles Times horticultural editor wrote in April 1899 that the Advance was "entirely superior to anything yet seen" and that "every yard should have one."
Taft continued to breed loquats on his 15-acre planting and released half a dozen varieties over the next decade, including Champagne (still the standard of flavor) and Early Red, which matures in late January and February.