Do you know loquat? I'll bet you do — even if you don't.Know it but don't appreciate it? Let's pause a moment to adore this little fruit.. . . Small oblong sun, cousin to the peachYour history reaches far to the East . . .Wendy Buffington, New Port RicheyO, loquat pieYour sweetness makes me smileFriends! Come eat your fill.Carmella Guiol, TampaRevered in these excerpts from Vol. 1, Leaves of Loquat, the hardy Asian native gets its due April 8 at the fourth annual Florida Loquat Festival in New Port Richey. You'll find workshops, plenty of trees and homemade jellies and jams for sale, and "O! Loquat!," the literary festival that bequeaths Leaves of Loquat.Think you don't know the loquat tree? It likely grows on every other street you pass en route to the grocery store, and maybe even in your own yard. You may — like my mom and sister — say, "Nope, I don't have a loquat. That's a Japanese plum tree that my (dad/aunt/neighbor/friend) gave me years ago."If you've got Japanese plum, you've got loquat. And you've been blessed. So says an authority on such matters, the chair of the Religious Studies department at the University of South Florida."Loquats are a living expression of the concept of grace given to us by a generous universe," says Dell DeChant, who's been teaching religion at USF for 30 years. "Loquat trees will out-produce any fruit tree I know. They're easy to care for and the beauty of loquats is the fruit doesn't become ripe all at once. It comes in over a period of months, so at any time, you have flowers, green fruit and ripe fruit."A few years ago, Dell realized that his academic focus — religion in contemporary cultures and how we sacralize the world — dovetails with his passion for gardening. The literature of all the mainstream religions includes exhortations to protect and nurture nature, he says, and he sees more and more people finding their cathedrals in gardens, experiencing the sacred by touching nature.So he helped found a nonprofit, Ecology Florida, which has spawned two robust community gardens and the Loquat Festival, a one-day event that's grown from 200 visitors in its first year to 1,000 last year, by organizers' count. Loquats get big love, Dell says, because they thrive in cities and suburbs, need no fertilizer or pesticides, tolerate heat and cold, and get by on rainwater. In short, anyone can grow a loquat tree and produce food that feeds body and soul.But you don't need to wait till April to get your loquat on! Peak fruiting starts now and the Loquat Fest folks welcome all harvest help and trees to glean. If you want to help harvest or volunteer your trees, call Sylvia Spencer at (407) 488-5018 or email [email protected]Got loquat trees or want to grow them? Some tips:Spots are good: "Perfect" looking yellow fruit will be tart. Loquats taste sweetest when they've developed an orange hue and dark spots. "Like bananas," Dell says.Eat 'em quick: Don't refrigerate your fresh-harvested loquats; eat or preserve them within 48 hours.Choose your variety: There are at least 13 loquat varieties, about four of which are widely available locally. It you want to plant a tree, sample the flavors at the Loquat Fest. Big Gem and Christmas produce the plumpest fruits.Even when they're not fruiting, loquat trees enhance the landscape with shiny, green leaves. They can grow to about 35 feet tall, but most top out at half that, making them a good choice for smaller spaces."They ask nothing of us, and give us so much," Dell says. "Loquats are a gift from Mother Nature to the people of Florida."Contact Penny Carnathan at [email protected]; visit her blog, digginfloridadirt.com; join in the chat on Facebook, Diggin Florida Dirt; and follow @DigginPenny.