The Japanese medlar is a beloved tree for both its sweet fruits and ornamental qualities. This plant, with clear Eastern origins, has been cultivated in our country for over two centuries. It should not be confused with the common medlar, a plant native to the Mediterranean Europe and long naturalized on our continent. The botanical characteristics of the Japanese medlar are quite unique. For example, it has a very late flowering, in the heart of autumn, which is much appreciated by bees. However, to produce its fruits, medlars, it needs specific climatic conditions and cultivation practices. If grown with the right techniques, even a single specimen of this tree can provide great productivity.
Let’s get to know this plant with an exotic flavor and fascinating appearance.
Botanical Identification and Origins
The Japanese medlar (Eriobotrya Japonica) is a fruit tree belonging to the Rosaceae family. It is a species originally from the wild regions of Eastern China but domesticated in Japan. In the Land of the Rising Sun, varieties with large, more valuable fruits have been selected. In the old continent, it arrived in 1784, in the Paris Botanical Garden. While in Italy, it arrived in the early 19th century and was initially cultivated as an ornamental plant. As mentioned, it should not be confused with the common medlar, Mespilus germanica, which has a longer tradition in our country. For example, many scholars believe that “the house of the medlar”, the famous and ill-fated dwelling in Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malavoglia, refers to the common medlar and not the Japanese one.
The Latin name Eriobotrya is derived from the combination of two words, érion = wool and botrys = bunch of grapes. This term refers to the characteristic clustered inflorescences and the fact that the green, non-lignified parts of the plant are covered with a thin and dense fuzz. The Japanese medlar is widespread throughout Italy, but it is mainly in the South that it is cultivated to produce fruit. In the North, it is mostly grown as a splendid ornamental plant; we will understand the reason for this later.
Botanical Characteristics of the Japanese Medlar
The Japanese medlar tree is an evergreen broadleaf, characterized by large leaves. The plant itself is quite vigorous, although it usually does not exceed 6 meters in height. Its natural form is globular, with an expansive crown and lush foliage.
Trunk, Roots, and Leaves
The trunk is straight, with dark gray bark. Many branches branch out from the trunk, extending both laterally and upwards, giving it its characteristic rounded shape. The root system is extensive but not very deep. The roots are superficial, so the plant does not tolerate deep soil cultivation. As mentioned, the leaves are very large, reaching up to 25 cm in length and 10 cm in width. They are elliptical in shape and taper to a point. Additionally, they are very thick and robust, with noticeable grooves. The color is dark green with a shiny surface on the upper side, while it is pale green (almost white) on the lower side. Being an evergreen, the foliage renews itself from time to time, with an average leaf lifespan of three years.
Flowers and Flowering
Flowering is one of the peculiarities of the Japanese medlar. It is a fruit tree that blooms in the heart of autumn and for a long time, from October to December. This is why fruit production is mostly concentrated in southern regions. In general, the tree is cold-resistant, but if it encounters frost during flowering, it does not reach fruit set and does not bear fruit. This plant thrives best in areas with a mild climate, from the coast up to low hills (approximately 600 meters above sea level). The Italian regions where fruit production is most concentrated are Sicily, Campania, Puglia, and Calabria. Late flowering is a real boon for bees, which usually find few melliferous plants to collect nectar and pollen from in late autumn. In addition to the Japanese medlar, another plant rich in this period is ivy.
The flowers are hermaphroditic, and the pollination of the Japanese medlar is entomogamous (or entomophilous), occurring thanks to bees and other pollinators. Thus, a single plant is sufficient to produce fruit. Bee pollination can only occur in areas free from chemical pesticides and characterized by high biodiversity. Returning to the medlar’s flowers, they are clustered in star-shaped inflorescences. They are white-pink in color and covered with a thin fuzz, which serves to protect them from the cold. Besides being appealing to bees, they are also pleasant to our sense of smell, as they emit a sweet fragrance.
Given a mild climate, the medlar fruits set in the heart of winter. These mature gradually and are ready in spring. Depending on the variety and cultivation area, full ripening occurs between April and early June. Medlars are small light orange pomes. They can be spherical, ovoid, or pear-shaped. They have thin skin, and the flesh is soft and cream-colored. The fruit has a sweet, aromatic taste and can be eaten in one bite by delicately removing the skin. Inside the pulp, there are large brown seeds whose number varies from 1 to 4, depending on the variety. The seed occupies a large part of the fruit, does not have a germination period, and tends to dehydrate rapidly. For this reason, if you want to obtain new plants starting from the seed, you should bury them immediately after harvesting.
Italian Varieties of Japanese Medlar
Over the years, farmers have selected numerous native varieties of the Japanese medlar, mostly from Sicily. These include:
- Precoce di Palermo
- Nespolo di Ferdinando
- Nespolone di Trabia
- Grossa lunga
- Grossa tonda
- Santa Rosalia
- Conca d’oro
- Nespolo di Bagheria
- Nespolone bianco
- Nespolone rosa
- Nespola rossa di Ficarazzi
Among the foreign varieties, the most renowned are:
- Early Red
Cultivating the Japanese Medlar
Cultivating the Japanese medlar is a task within reach of everyone, even the least experienced. Naturally, though, you need to consider certain cultural needs of the tree. The best time for planting is in autumn, and in this regard, we recommend reading our comprehensive guide on how to plant a fruit tree. Proper exposure is crucial for good fruiting. The Japanese medlar thrives in a sunny area while also being sheltered from strong winds. Wind can complicate the work of pollinating bees and can also damage the tree by breaking its larger branches. As mentioned earlier, the Japanese medlar blossoms in autumn and starts bearing fruit in the heart of winter. Prolonged frost can lead to significant issues with fruit setting and the development of small fruits. We advise against cultivating the Japanese medlar for fruit production in areas with harsh winters. However, for ornamental purposes, the situation changes, as the plant is resistant to low temperatures. For these reasons, the cultivation range is similar to what we’ve seen for lemons.
Propagation and Grafting
The Japanese medlar can be propagated from seed, preserving the original characteristics of the mother plant. Typically, it is then grafted to reduce the time it takes to start bearing fruit. From the seed, a robust rootstock is obtained, which is the most commonly used since it’s excellent for most varieties. Other rootstocks used for this cultivar include hawthorn and quince. Japanese medlar grown from seed takes a long time to bear fruit, approximately 7-8 years. With grafted plants, these times are shorter, and fruiting begins as early as the fourth year. On average, a Japanese medlar tree will produce fruit for up to 35 years.
Training System and Planting Distance
In the initial years of Japanese medlar cultivation, you’ll need to decide on the training system to use. The most common options are the standard tree form and the bush form. If you choose the standard tree form, the pruning process involves maintaining the main leader up to the desired height. Gradually, you’ll eliminate the lower branches year by year. Be careful not to over-prune the young tree to avoid weakening its growth. This training method involves allowing the tree to grow with a trunk approximately 120 cm high, from which four or three branches originate. Once the main scaffold branches reach the desired height, the tree is left to develop freely. For the bush form, the initial cutting should be performed on the main trunk to encourage the development of primary branches from the base. The recommended planting distance varies from 5×5 m to 6×6 m, depending on the vigor of the chosen variety.
Regarding soil requirements, the Japanese medlar is a relatively hardy species. It prefers loamy soil with good organic matter content and a neutral pH. It does not thrive in clayey and compacted soils that lead to waterlogging. Excessive limestone content should also be avoided, especially if the tree is grafted onto quince. The standard rootstock tolerates limestone better and typically doesn’t cause issues like iron chlorosis and slow growth.
During the tree’s initial planting, Japanese medlar should be fertilized to provide essential nutrients to the young root system. This is done by adding well-rotted manure to the planting hole. Alternatively, you can use organic pelletized manure, such as this one. No further intervention is needed during the first year of the tree’s life. For the following years, the approach depends on your soil management technique. If you choose to keep the soil covered, a cover crop in autumn-winter is sufficient for fertilization. If you decide to till the soil, regular organic matter addition is necessary. Organic manure is preferred for organic fertilization and can be incorporated into the soil through light digging. This operation is best performed in autumn, during fruit setting, and at the end of winter. Avoid using wood ash to prevent increasing soil pH.
Regular irrigation is crucial for Japanese medlar growth, especially just before fruit maturation. In the case of a particularly dry spring, regular watering will be necessary. The same applies to the summer period. Naturally, as the tree matures, emergency irrigation becomes less frequent.
A widely practiced cultivation technique for loquat trees is fruit thinning. This operation can be performed at two distinct moments. One is in early autumn, before the flowers open. In this case, ensure there is only one cluster of flowers per branch, keeping the central one and removing the weaker lateral ones. Alternatively, thinning can be done in winter when the fruits are slightly larger than a hazelnut. In this case, only leave the best 4 or 5 loquats on the cluster. This method results in fewer fruits, but they are healthier and larger.
For optimal productivity, proper pruning is crucial. It primarily involves thinning out the canopy, removing the thinnest branches poorly exposed to the sun. Also, remove branches that could press down on the fruits, causing injuries due to wind-induced oscillations.
Any dry or damaged branches due to pathogens and adverse weather conditions, such as heavy snowfall, should be pruned. Periodically, prune some of the branches that have already borne fruit to encourage the growth of new branches that will bear fruit the following year. The best time for pruning is right after the spring harvest, during the months when various varieties ripen.
A mature and productive Japanese medlar tree can yield up to 30 kg of fruits. Harvesting should be done gracefully, leaving the peduncle and only picking ripe fruits. This ensures better and prolonged preservation. Loquats are delicate and bruise easily, so great care must be taken during harvesting. Another drawback is that the fruits do not keep for long. These characteristics have significantly impacted the commercial expansion of this cultivar, often limiting it to local consumption.
It is essential to harvest the fruits when they are fully ripe for enjoyable consumption. Immature loquats are bitter and can feel astringent on the palate. To determine if a fruit is fully ripe, observe the skin carefully. If there are small darker spots and light indentations, complete ripening has occurred.
Pests and Diseases
Loquat trees are quite susceptible to adversities and pests. Among these, the most common issue is scab, a disease recognizable by round spots on leaves and fruits. It also leads to the formation of cankers on branches and can severely affect the harvest. Another fungal disease to monitor is anthracnose, which causes conspicuous irregular necrotic spots on leaves. Biological treatments for these two diseases are carried out in winter, before fruit ripening, similar to the peach blister and olive peacock spot, which are treated with preventive copper-based products. Loquat trees are also susceptible to powdery mildew, or white mold. As for pests, the most troublesome ones are scale insects and aphids, which appear in spring. For biological defense against these issues, please refer to the respective articles.
Japanese medlar trees are rich in beneficial properties, not only in their fruits. The leaves, for example, contain many antioxidants used for liver health and anti-aging skin care. The fruits are an excellent source of vitamins A, B, and C. They also have a good content of minerals, primarily potassium, but also phosphorus and magnesium. Loquats are ideal for those following a weight-loss diet, being very rich in water and fiber. One hundred grams contain only 47 kcal. They are sweet, refreshing, highly digestible, and have a mild laxative effect.
Japanese medlar Honey
Special mention deserves Japanese medlar honey. It is a niche product obtained from bees’ activity during the flowering period. In our country, it is produced only in Sicily, in the Trabia and Calatabiano areas, where the cultivations are flourishing. This honey is available in limited quantities, and a good year depends greatly on seasonal weather conditions. This is because, as we mentioned, during uncertain weather periods or strong winds, bees cannot pollinate. The color of loquat honey ranges from almost colorless to light amber when liquid. When crystallized, it varies from pearly white to light beige.