Monday, September 12, 2011

Permaculture Plants: The Medlar Tree

The Common Medlar

Common Name: Medlar
Scientific Name: Mespilus germanica
Family: Rosaceae

Ripe or "bletted" Medlars ready to eat

Description:
The Medlar is a small tree or a large shrub native to southwest Asia (Turkey and Iran) and southeast Europe that was one of the most common fruits in Western Civilization, yet is almost unknown today.  The name of the tree is also the name of the fruit.  It has large dark leaves that turn yellow or red in the fall.  The fruit are 0.5-1.5 inches (2-3 cm) in diameter and are brown when ripe.  People either love or hate the fruit.  The hard fruit only become edible after bletting (see trivia below).  When ripe, the fruit has a flavor and consistency of "spiced applesauce with wine undertones".  People who dislike the flavor of the fresh fruit state that it tastes like rotten apples. This is yet another great-tasting fruit that few people know of because it doesn't ship or store well and is therefore not available in stores.  It has almost no pests or disease and requires almost no maintenance.  This is one of the great trees for an Edible Forest Garden.


Medlar Trees, Cagnes by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1908


History:
Native to the Black Sea coasts of Turkey and the Caspian Sea coasts of Iran, the Medlar has likely been cultivated for over 3,000 years.  Introduced to Greece aroun 700 BC and to Rome around 200 BC.  It was a common Middle Ages fruit that spread through much of Europe and Britain.  It became less and less popular as apples and pears become more common, and their fruits store and ship much better.  The Medlar was often stored in stacks of hay in the barn and enjoyed through the winter, very uncommon for a fruit.  It is believed to have been brought to North America by Jesuit priests in the 1800's and to South Africa in the 17th Century.

Trivia:
  • Fruit must be bletted before eaten.  Typically this is done by picking the fruit after the first frost and storing it in a cool place.  The fruit must be stored calyx-end down.  The fruit will sofen, the skin will darken, and the skin will slightly wrinkle.  Bletting can take from one to three weeks.  Fruit can be allowed to ripen on the tree, but this may result in more dry-tasting fruit; however, some people prefer this.
  • There is a Stoneless variety that has no seeds, but lacks good flavor.
  • The only other Mespilus species, M. canescens or Stern's Medlar, was found in Arkansas, United States in 1990.  Only 25 existing plants are known.
  • Popular in European Literature: Chaucer calls it the "open-arse fruit"; Shakespeare makes frequent mention of the medlar that is "rotten before it is ripe" and used as a symbol of premature destitution; Dekker states that women are like medlars, "no sooner ripe but rotten".

Harvesting Medlars
Photo from the Root Simple website.


USING THIS PLANT
Primary Uses:
  • Fresh Eating - Halve the fruit and scoop out the pulp, avoid or spit out the seeds
  • Jams and Jellies - naturally high in pectin
  • Tarts 
  • Pies and Desserts
  • Fruit Leather
  • Folded with cream
  • Wine
  • "Medlar Cheese" - made with fruit pulp, eggs, and butter (similar to lemon curd)
  • Traditional dessert - roasting Medlars with butter and cloves

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar source
  • Specimen tree (elbowed branches, big leaves, interesting flowers, beautiful fall color, fruit stays on after leaf drop, great tasting fruit, tree that is low-maintenance)
  • Very hard wood, but does not get large and the branches are not very straight; therefore, it has been used for spear points, hunting and warfare clubs, fighting sticks, and in windmill parts.  The Basque people use the Medlar to make their traditional Makhila (walking stick and weapon)

Yield: 20 lbs per tree
Harvesting: Mid-Autumn (October-November); Typically harvested after the first frost or when the leaves are starting to drop.  Handle the hard fruits gently for best bletting (see Trivia above).
Storage: Once ripe, they will only last a few days.

The central Medlar blossom at the end of the stem with elliptical leaves.

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
USDA Hardiness Zone: 5-8
AHS Heat Zone: 9-4
Chill Requirement: not described

Plant Type: Tree
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Sub-Canopy Tree or Canopy for a small Forest Garden
Cultivars/Varieties: A few are available, but the difference is either in the size of the fruit or the shape of the tree (weeping, bushy, open tree).  The fruit flavor is not much different between

Pollination: Self-pollinating (Self-fruitful) - only one plant is needed to produce fruit

Flowering: May-June
Life Span: Information for this ranges from "30-50 years" to "very long-lived tree"
Years to Begin Bearing: 3-5 years

Medlar Tree in an English backyard

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Size: 10-20 feet (3-6 m) tall and wide
Roots: not described
Growth Rate: Medium

Bark of the Medlar Tree

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Light: Full Sun
Shade: Tolerates moderate shade, but still needs a little direct sun per day to fruit.  More sun = larger yields
Moisture: Medium
pH: 5.5-7.5

Special Considerations for Growing: Plant new trees between November and March.

Propagation:
Typically grafted on to hawthorn rootstock (which can grow in a variety of conditions), but also on pear and quince rootstock.

Maintenance:
None once established.  Does not need pruning and does not have any significant pests or disease.
An occasional pruning in let in light or too remove dead branches could be needed.

Concerns:
Fruit must be bletted, which some lazy people find too time consuming.
Some people do not like the flavor of the fresh fruit.  If you have limited space, try to taste one before you plant the tree.

8 comments:

  1. My first harvest of about 3 lbs was superb. The fruit is very sweet and when cleaned, skinned and stoned, "pickled " in white wine, makes an utterly superb dessert to go on ice-cream or in a tart. Living in south West France.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Replies
    1. I totally agree with John, thanks for the comment/suggestion!

      Delete
    2. I totally agree with John, thanks for the comment/suggestion!

      Delete
  3. Greetings, John, I often "pickle" extra fruits either in red or white wines, depending on the fruit. I use the basic "Rumtopf" recipe, but only half the sugar. Put fruit into lidded container, cover with the wine, close but allow air to escape in case of further fermentation. Allow fruit to settle at the bottom of the container before using it. Enjoy it, but left long enough, take care - it gets very potent! R.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great article, this statement in particular saved me £48.50/$74.10

    "There is a Stoneless variety that has no seeds, but lacks good flavor."

    readsnursery.co.uk/medlar-seedless/



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