Drive down the streets of SanTana's oldest neighborhoods in spring, and you'll see towering loquat trees drooping over the fences of seemingly every other house. Hundreds upon hundreds of mysterious pastel orange, ping-pong-ball-sized fruits are ripening on branches in tight clusters, each giving off an intoxicatingly sugary scent that drives birds nuts with hunger. Local children run along the sidewalks gorging themselves on the sweet globes, sticky pulp covering their hands and faces as they spit the slimy pits at each other.
Loquats are that fruit you’ve most likely seen around Orange County but never really had the chance to try. No local restaurant ever bothers to make something out of them, and they're never sold in markets due to their delicate nature and short shelf life. They aren’t like kumquats and taste nothing alike. A member of the Rosaceae (Rose) family native to China, the loquat (called níspero in Spanish) is a relative of the apple and pear; depending on the variety, the fruit can range in size from one to three inches with skin that is moderately fuzzy and rather unpleasant to eat, and a color and fleshy texture similar to apricot.
"Loquats are so ubiquitous in Delhi," said Jessica Atkins, a resident of the historic neighborhood whose family has lived on the same property for over 100 years. "It comes closest to honey and apricots. My grandfather would wait until they get overripe, when they're really syrupy, and eat them with cottage cheese or ice cream.”
Trees that are close to a century old pepper the county from Placentia to SanTana, and live on as remnants of a once-booming loquat industry started by horticulturist Charles Parker Taft in 1891. Thanks to the farmer, Orange County had one of the largest loquat groves in the world, and many of the superior varieties that are unwittingly grown today such as Advance and Champagne were pioneered at his Tustin ranch.
Taft, an Ohio native, was a fruit connoisseur obsessed with tropical varieties from around the world. Most known for his work with avocados and loquats, Taft is generally credited with the first commercial planting of each and is considered the father of the subtropical fruit industry in Southern California. He started experimenting with loquats around 1888 and soon after devoted the majority of his time and land to their development. Orange County's climate just happens to be perfect for loquats, with the first harvest arriving to the markets at the beginning of spring when practically no other fruits were available. Specific varieties, like Taft’s Early Red, were harvested and sold to the public as soon as February. Taft even claimed that a loquat grove could yield the same or larger amount of profit as an orange grove of similar size. In 1906, they became so popular that the Los Angeles Times speculated the supply for loquats could double before demand was met.
By 1915, Taft had 25 acres of loquats that produced between 90 to 100 tons of fruit per year. "The loquat is in a way the most characteristic fruit of Orange County," he wrote in Samuel Armour's 1921 history of Orange County, "for it is here that it has been most highly developed, and so far as yet ascertained, has reached a perfection unknown elsewhere, not only in California, but in the world."
By 1924, the fruit became so hyped that the Santa Ana Register’s banner headline for its farm bureau news section read, “Predicts Loquats Will Rival Oranges.”
"The loquat, of which I am the originator of all but a few known varieties, will someday become the competitor, along with several other tropical fruits, to the orange, now the mainstay of ranchers in this part of the country," Taft told the Register. "These semi-tropical fruits are easily adaptable to this climate, and due to their freedom from diseases, of which they have practically none, they should prove very popular among fruit growers."
Unfortunately for Taft and local farmers, the loquat trend died almost immediately after that Register headline. As the costs of labor, land and water rose, many loquat farmers had to sell their land or stick with oranges. "There was no market for them in commercial quantities and they did not pay," said B.A. Crawford, manager of the Tustin Hill Orange Packing House, to the Register in late 1924. "Without exception, almost all the loquat trees have been taken out and oranges set instead."
Taft ended up selling his orchard in 1926; by 1951, the loquat completely disappeared from the OC Agricultural Production Statistics report, the county's main barometer of what farmers were growing and selling. However, one community made sure that loquats were kept alive in the county.
“Loquats were a big thing in the Mexican community in the '20s, '30s, and '40s,” Atkins said. “Many of those people worked on farms in northern Santa Ana and would get loquat seeds to grow at home. You will find them growing in the original five barrios of Santa Ana.”
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Although the loquat is no longer a staple of OC agriculture, it remains a prolific producer for those who want a fruit tree requiring minimal care. According to Gary Matsuoka, a well-known horticulturist and owner of Laguna Hills Nursery in SanTana, the loquat tree is one of the few fruit trees that will produce without irrigation as long as there is normal rainfall.
If you are thinking about getting one for your yard, Gary’s favorite variety is the Vista White, known for its intense flavor and high sugar content. Seedlings work just fine, while grafted trees that will yield fruit sooner cost more. He recommends planting at least two and pruning them heavily after the fruit is picked. “The loquat is one of the easier fruits for beginners,” Matsuoka said.
With a little care and a lot of time, you, too, can be in the same predicament that Atkins and her family faces each year: what to do with all those loquats. Her trees usually give 200 to 300 pounds every year.
"Loquats are the common man’s exotic fruit," Atkins said. "They are in almost everyone's yard here. We get so many that we are sick to death of them."