Wednesday, July 20, 2011


There are fruit trees behind the houses in my neighborhood. They are lovely when looking toward the building on the other side where the young people party, especially at this time of year. Little bright canary-yellow flecks among large dark green leaves, drupes of a warm golden hue.

The first time I saw a loquat tree was in Berkeley, as such things do not grow in the Netherlands.
My neighbors had loquat trees, and in the heat of July and August it was exceedingly pleasant to sit in the shade of their garden, admiring the glowing orbs above. The clustered leaves of the loquats shattered the strong sunlight and created a patch-shadowed hollow that seemed timeless till even late in the day.

That particular summer I spent a lot of afternoons next door.

Their daughter once mentioned a man she had known a few years earlier.
The two of them had gone out together often while he was at U.C. Berkeley, but even though they seemed to have much in common, she never let the situation go anywhere. She had not felt that he was right for her - he was a bit too old, and not even a graduate at that. If she waited for him to complete his degree her own life would have been put on hold. Yes, he was a handsome man. Interesting, intelligent and kind, too. But there was that age difference!
Surely there is more to a serious attachment than just enjoying similar books and movies, isn't there? One has to be able to plan a future together, a commonality of progression. Degree, career, house.... children, car, mortgage. Old-age eventually, roughly in synch. Besides, stability and values are too at odds with being a student. Especially, being a student again.
It makes sense to get your education over with first, before thinking of love.
Less complicated that way, don't you agree?
And certainly more suitable.

She blinked and looked away before continuing. Despite being older than me she looked startlingly young at that moment. All pink.

They had dated for over two years when she cut it off. She had felt that things were getting too close to what she called a "real" relationship. And she knew that that wasn't what she wanted, not with him. Or at least not with a man who had decided to finish his degree so late in life. He was already in his thirties!
She admitted that she had taken the cowardly way out. When he went to grad school in Southern California (because a lab that he associated with was down there), she had deliberately let their correspondence slide, hardly ever spoke to him on the phone, and then pointedly changed subjects and talked of things and people that he could not know about. As time passed, phone calls became more and more inconvenient, strained even.
A family crisis was the pretext for relinquishing all communication, although at the time she indicated that it might be only temporary.
It was permanent.
Precisely as she intended it to be.
She went out to dinner a few times with someone they both knew.
Word reached her "ex" in Southern California, and they never talked again.

That had been over six years ago. She herself had already graduated, and was working in her field at an office in Oakland. She wasn't happy with her job, advancement seemed like it was too slow or not happening at all, and the field she was in was, let's face it, neither very interesting nor very meaningful. She was seriously thinking of going back to school to get another degree. She could work part time for a consultancy and pay her own way.
She was, finally, wondering what to really do with herself.

I don't think she wanted to admit it, but the man she used to know was on her mind. He had his doctorate now, and had been snapped up by a company in New Hampshire. It was unlikely that he would ever come to the West Coast again.
Well, maybe for conferences.
But probably not to live. His field was sufficiently intriguing to him that location would not mean much.
Then was then, now was now.
It felt like there were more years than ever between them.

What she had done was the right thing, of that she was still sure.
She liked living in Berkeley, and could not imagine moving to the East-Coast, ever.
She shuddered as she speculated about seasons there - sharply differentiated weather patterns, freezing in winter, hot and humid in summer. So limiting!
Her parents had moved out West to get away from that.
They had relatives back East they hardly even knew.
It was a very different place.

As she was talking, a small fruit fly circled her head. Finally, shaking her blonde hair with irritation at the pesky insect, she snapped "what use are these trees, if you can't even eat the fruits?"

"Oh, but you CAN eat them."

"What?!? I thought they were just decorative!"

Her parents had bought the house many years after the previous owner had planted the trees. They had never asked what those things were, and she had not wondered either. They were just trees, surely those colourful things which were NOT plums or apples or apricots were only for pretty pretty, like the poisonous berries on the bushes at the far end?


The modern term in Chinese is 枇杷 (pei pa), which is probably a borrowing from an extinct Malayo-Polynesian language once spoken in Southern China (where the plant is native), long before the Han expansion. The characters are composed of two phonetic elements combined with the tree radical (木), and by themselves do not communicate anything. Only together do they have meaning.
Originally the fruit was called 蘆橘 (lou gwat). That, too, is a bi-syllabic construct, but each character does have its own significance: 'reed' plus 'orange'.
As fruit trees, loquats are unusual in that they flower in late autumn, produce fruit in early to mid-summer.
To eat them, one peels off the thin skin when the loquats are soft and ripe. What may look like rotten spots are often mere surface discolouration of which no trace remains in the flesh. They are sweet and aromatic, and can be used for lovely preserves.
Loquats are considered calming to the nerves, tonifying, and beneficial to the throat and lungs.
The seeds are large, comparatively speaking, and inedible.

[A well-known Chinese cough syrup (枇杷膏 'pei pa gou') contains loquats as a primary ingredient. It is described here: Some Cantonese opera performers use it to keep their throats healthy. It is available in every Chinatown, at both herbalists and regular stores. Along with 潘高壽 (pan ko sou: loquat and fritillary extract), you could do far worse for a tussive condition.]

Right now is when loquats are fully ripe in San Francisco. It is wise to harvest most of them soon - it's healthier for the plant to do so. And because they are sweet and fragrant, rats and birds will get at them if left too long on the branches. Plus fruitflies and ants.
Loquats are high in pectin - use the unblemished ones for jam, and the firmer specimens for little pastries.
Sweet warm fruit. There is no better season than the present.

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1 comment:

The back of the hill said...

Also summery: 酸梅湯 - sour plum soup.

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