It’s early summer 2014, and we’ve just finished shopping at the local Chinese grocery store. We extend our walk home a bit, weaving our way through the Richmond District. As a lark, we wander into the open house of a whatever-point-whatever-million-dollar home. We stroll through the halls as we peruse the listing sheet, eyes wide from the price. We continue down the stairs, and then I see it: a secret hidden in plain sight. Through the in-law unit that borders the garage, through the sliding glass door that leads to the backyard — a huge tree covered in plump, bell-shaped, light-orange fruits. SCORE.
I turn to the real estate agent who had followed me into the backyard and I can’t help myself. I point, open-mouthed at this tree, “THAT. Is a loquat tree.” He replies, “Oh yeah! Did you want to take some fruit?” I am giddy with excitement. I rummage through my tote bag and grab a reused produce bag while recounting my loquat knowledge to the agent. Then I transform into a director, showing my then-boyfriend which bunches to pluck. When I reach into my tote for a second produce bag, he has to stop me. I protest, but he convinces me we’ve overstayed our welcome. I slump in disappointment, but the agent is friendly and happily sends us on our fruit-filled way. I slink back through the sliding door, quietly hoping the future owners recognize the treasure they’ll acquire with this house.
Introducing: The Loquat
The loquat, a phonetic translation from the Cantonese lou4 gwat1, originated in Southern China¹ — as did my ancestors. It is an incredibly versatile fruit that grows in subtropical regions (like Guangdong Province in China) to mild, temperate climates (like the San Francisco Bay Area).
The loquat tree has large, slightly fuzzy, and deeply veined leaves. Their colors range from light to deep forest green. They’re stiff and almost brittle. The tree’s branches are slightly gnarled, bumpy and fuzzy like alert, brown caterpillars. A tree can live to be 150 years old², but requires eight to 10 years of growth before it bears fruit. And, even then, trees only bear fruit every two or three years3.
When ripe, loquats boast a soft, slightly floral flavor, reminiscent of summer peaches and delicate mangoes. Their sweetness brings to mind a mellow honey or turbinado sugar sparkling on the tongue. When unripe, the loquat carries a lightly acidic tartness, like a sweet Meyer lemon or raspberry lemonade, that causes the mouth to water. The loquat’s flesh is soft, yet firm like a grape: juicy without a mess. Its seeds are smooth, shiny brown pits.
I’ve been known to describe the loquat as an extremely delicious mashup of a peach and apricot.
For optimum enjoyment, peel the skin (I recommend from the bottom up), split the fruit in half and remove the oversized seeds. It’s exceedingly difficult to have just one.
“Loh gwat!” my grandmother exclaims as she presents a bowlful of peeled fruit halves to myself and the rest of her grandchildren.
I dutifully take a piece and eat it. She smiles and nods approvingly. It’s sweet and delicious, so I take another. The second is tart and I scrunch my face, eyes watering a bit from the acid. My grandma mimics my face and laughs to herself, coaxing us to eat more.
As a child, I never quite understood what “loh gwat” were. To me, they were just another fruit that my grandmother conjured, ready-to-eat, from the kitchen.
It wasn’t until years later, as a teenager, that I realized my grandma labored over every fruit, carefully peeling and coring this one or diligently slicing that one into perfectly manageable bits. I also learned that, in all those years, my grandma was pronouncing “loquat” with a Chinese accent. But teenage Jenn was wrong — loquat is lou4 gwat1 pronounced with an American accent.
Once, in 2015, I saw a woman in my neighborhood with two May Wah bags filled to the brim with loquats. My eyes light up. Again, I couldn’t help myself — I stopped her on the street.
Me: “Oh my gosh. Where did you get those? Those are loquats, right? Loh gwat? Was May Wah selling them?”
Her: “No, my friend has a tree in her backyard and gave them to me! I was just visiting her … do you have a bag?”
Me: “Huh? Yes?”
Her: “If you have a bag, I will give you some!”
Me: “What?! Wow. Thank you so much!”
I hold my bag out to her and she shovels loquats into it. I am elated.
But where, tho?
Loquats bruise easily and have a relatively short shelf life, rendering them near impossible to find in commercial grocery stores. They grow reliably with little maintenance, but harvesting and storage require a gentle touch. Commercial loquat production in the United States is (sadly) not lucrative because of these factors. However, stronger consumer awareness of the fruit in countries like Brazil, Japan, Israel, Italy, and Spain means one sometimes finds them in markets or fruit stands there4.
If you’re lucky, you might discover loquats at a local farmer’s market, specialty fruit store, or nearby orchard. And, as soon as you learn to recognize the trees, you’ll start to notice them everywhere. A former coworker grew up eating loquats in Florida and said that he’s seen them growing as San Francisco street trees. And he’s right. With technology and DataSF on our side, we know that San Francisco has approximately 2,700 loquat street trees! That doesn’t even include trees growing in people’s backyards.
A farm in Contra Costa County, Wolfe Ranch in Brentwood, which specializes in U-Pick fruits like peaches and cherries, once sold pre-picked loquats. I couldn’t believe it! Alas: A few years after they popped onto my radar, they ceased selling loquats.
Unfortunately, I never made it to one of their harvests.
I once saw them at a Chinese fruit and vegetable market in the Richmond District close to a decade ago, but haven’t seen them for sale since.
However, one might have more luck on the east side of The City. I was recently informed that one can, at times, purchase these beauties at the Alemany Farmers Market. And a quick search online returns K&J Farms, which sells loquats in May and June at the Ferry Plaza and Mission Farmers markets. Exciting!
My loquat source? It’s an open secret — my grandmother in the Richmond District, of course.
My Loquat Herstory
Pau Pau, sometimes written “Po Po” or “Paw Paw,” is a Cantonese (or Mandarin, dependent on the intonation) term referring to one’s maternal grandmother.
(As an aside, Chinese languages contain honorific titles for each person in a family which indicate how they are related to you. Pau Pau is just one of many. This video describes most of them in Cantonese.)
Decades ago, Pau Pau’s neighbors gave her some loquats from their backyard tree. Pau Pau was surprised to see this rare but familiar fruit, a memory of her youth in Zhongshan County, China, from which she immigrated directly to San Francisco in 1948 as a young adult. She enjoyed the fruits at home with her children and decided to plant a few seeds in her own garden. Pau Pau always had a green thumb, pruning all types of plants from plum trees to rose bushes. As a child, I remember being confused by all the egg shells and coffee grounds in the dirt. Eventually, the tree grew and blossomed, and Pau Pau had her own share of loquats to dole out to family, friends, and neighbors.
Years later, my father planted a second seed toward the back of Pau Pau’s yard, making harvests even more plentiful. Dad has also grown a few small loquat trees in large pots in my parents’ front yard. Recently, he transplanted them to more spacious soil in the backyard.
I have attempted to grow tiny versions of the plant in my apartment. I am, officially, 0-for-2, having underwatered my fragile seedlings or forgotten them while on vacation, but I haven’t given up. In fact, I planted eight new seeds from Pau Pau’s harvest this year into pots a few weeks ago. One day, this seedling will be planted in the fantasy backyard at the fantasy property that I fantasize that I can afford.
When the loquats start to ripen on the branch, Pau Pau calls my family and sometimes our extended relatives (from her landline), letting us know it’s time to pick “loh gwat.” Best to do it before the birds eat them all or they fall on the ground, as she says. We trek over with gloves, a branch-cutter, fishing net strapped to a bamboo pole, gardening shears, and a palpable hunger for delicious fruits. It’s an hours-long operation and we walk away with bags, boxes, or buckets of loquats.
One tragic year, my family hired gardeners to remove two very large trees in my grandma’s backyard. In addition to this work, they weeded and trimmed. This was something new — Pau Pau used to do all of the gardening herself, before age forced her to stop. No one advised the gardeners, and they trimmed the loquat tree back so hard that it didn’t bear fruit for several years.
In 2019, the June heat wave killed our chances at loquats.
Each of these is a sad and devastating event, but it only renews our hope in the next year’s harvest. Because loquat trees only bear fruit every two to three years, it’s always a gamble anyway.
It’s Alli and Alex’s housewarming party in Oakland. By the time we arrive, the event is well under way. We walk through the house to the backyard, greet everyone, and then I see it. The tallest loquat tree I’ve ever seen. Its branches are laden with beautiful, ripe — and unreachable — fruits.
I eagerly share the secret with my friends. I point, open-mouthed at this tree. “THAT. Is a loquat tree.” Alli and Alex laugh. “Yes, it is.” “Have you had any yet?” I ask. “Yes, but they were a bit sour,” Alex replies. “They look ripe now to me!” I exclaim. Desperation takes over and I panic, thinking of ways to acquire the loquats. I need them.
Do you have a ladder? Have you tried them yet? Can I climb your fence?
Alli and Alex offer what I take as permission, warning me that the fence isn’t the sturdiest. Sam and I had just started dating, so I strong-arm him into climbing a fence to pick some by talking about what a great rock climber he is. He manages to gather a few bunches before reaching higher begins to feel dangerous.
I take the loquats inside and carefully peel them, remove their seeds, and place them in a bowl. Wandering around the party, I offer them to people like hors d’oeuvres.
Do you want some loquats? Oh, they are a delicious fruit, kinda like a cross between an apricot and a peach, but way tastier. You’ll love them. These are from Alli and Alex’s tree — right there!
Without Pau Pau, none of my family would know about loquats.
The story of loquats in my family is also an immigration story. Just as Pau Pau immigrated to the United States from China, so did the loquat arrive on these shores. Loquats and my family share a lineage that goes back to the land in Southern China. We thrive in temperate localities: Zhongshan, San Francisco.
Adaptation takes many forms. For loquats in the United States, new soils and climate meant a physical adaptation. When Pau Pau arrived here in San Francisco, she adapted to the culture, the language, and a new way of life. Adaptation does not preclude retaining a sense of self, though. A loquat is still a loquat. And my family still keeps our Chinese traditions close thanks to my grandparents and great-grandparents.
The community Pau Pau built in San Francisco is forged from a common understanding of this uncompromised adaptation. Over time, that community presented her with gifts of remembrance from our motherland, including the loquat. Pau Pau recognized something familiar in this fruit. Community in the form of a mutual secret. “We are new to this place. But we preserve ourselves.”
Secret fruit from home. Secret seeds distributed and planted.
As the loquat trees grow in Pau Pau’s backyard, so do our family and traditions. We’ve created a new biennial ritual around loquats — every two years, the family comes together to create a cacophony of falling branches and sorted fruits. We keep planting these precious seeds, growing ever deepening roots in what was once an unfamiliar land.
It is a secret that I keep, but one that cries out to be shared with others.
: “Loquats History & Taxonomy,” Wikipedia. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
: “The thickest, tallest, and oldest loquat trees,” Monumental Trees. Retrieved July 26, 2020.
: Eulalia Palomo, “Fruitless Loquat Tree,” SFGate. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
: “Loquat,” California Rare Fruit Growers. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
Also: Lynne Rossetto Kasper, “Loquats may be rare, but they’re worth looking for,” The Splendid Table. Retrieved July 19, 2020.
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