Anyone who has gardened for a length of time has seen plants come into fashion and then disappear a few years later. Formal rose beds, gardening with grasses and tree ferns, as well as many others, have all enjoyed a boon in popularity before fading away, to be replaced by the next ‘must-have’. I have vivid memories of my own father completely redesigning our own garden in the 1970’s when Adrian Bloom popularised using heathers. And I hardly dare mention the decking fad of the late 1980’s, the staple of every TV make-over show. If there is one plant that deserves a moment in the sun, it has to be the medlar. It was last popular in the U.K. over 100 years ago and has been slowly fading into obscurity since – surely time for a revival in its fortunes!
Medlars (Mespilus germanica) are members of the Rosacaea family, and are closely related to the common hawthorn. Originally from Asia Minor, the Caucus and Northern Iran, they have been cultivated for almost 3000 years. Both the Greeks and the Romans grew them widely, and it was introduced into the UK in Roman times. Medlars were grown widely in this country for the next 1500 years, and were an important crop in the Middle Ages. It was in the late 1800’s that they were last popular, and it has now reached the stage where many people would struggle to even recognise the fruit.
Medlars have an image problem. Part of this comes from the fruit itself – dull brown and rough of skin, the flower sepals stay attached to the fruit and lead to the French name of ‘cul de chien’ – or dog’s bum in English! The other issue is that when the fruit is picked in October, it is inedible. Hard as nails, no inviting aroma, there is nothing that can be done with them at this stage. The fruit needs to be left for a couple of weeks in a warm spot, until it starts to ferment. This process is known as ‘bletting’, a term coined by the Victorian botanist John Lindley and transforms the medlar into a soft sweet delight. The inside can then be scooped out with a teaspoon and eaten fresh, or used in a number of ways by an inventive chef.
So, a fruit that resembles the back end of a dog and is eaten when it has gone rotten. At this point you may well be thinking the medlar deserves its century of obscurity. However it has many virtues, which to my mind make it one of the very best trees for small gardens, and deserving of wider planting. Being related to the hawthorn, it is very hardy and easy to grow. It tolerates a wide range of soils and sites from dry to wet, and whilst it prefers a slightly acidic soil, will still grow well in gardens with a higher ph. Despite its Middle Eastern origins, it will put up with cold, exposed spots. The blossom in Spring is a delight, large white flowers which are very frost-resistant.
It's also a tree that will never outgrow its situation. Nurseries offer medlars grafted onto a choice of rootstock – normally either quince or seedling pear. Trees on Quince A rootstock will get to about 3.5 metres tall, those on seedling pear up to 5m, and growth is normally spreading in habit. The only pruning required is to give the trees a tidy up in early Autumn. Cut back any new growth by half, and thin out any congested growth. A feed with a balanced fertiliser in Spring, and that is about all you will ever need to do. All varieties are self-fertile, so you only need one tree. No winter washes, no fiddling with grease bands, no complicated pruning regimes, no pollination groups – the medlar really is a low maintenance fruit tree.
But it is the fruit that makes it well worth planting. Once bletted, they are fantastic – a flavour like a sweet date, but with a hint of citrus. They have also been compared to mini toffee apples. Scooped out with a spoon, they make a fantastic accompaniment to blue cheese. It is at this stage that they can be made into medlar jelly – blush pink, sweet and fragrant, and a delight with cold meat. You can also steep them in alcohol, to make a wonderful winter warmer. The process is the same as for making sloe gin, but try using brandy instead for a fuller flavour.
The form you will most commonly find on offer is the species, Mespilus germanica. However there are a few named varieties in cultivation:
Nottingham- Slightly pear-shaped fruit approx 2.5cm in diameter with long sepals. Fruits are yellow-brown in colour with some russeting. Flavour is good. The tree is a little less vigorous than others making it the best choice where space is restricted.
Royal - Slightly newer variety! Fruit is round-shaped and approx 2.5cm diameter. They have a good flavour and are pleasantly acid. The tree has a neater habit than most, moderately upright and slightly more rounded form.
Westerveld- Originating from the Netherlands, this variety produces large fruits that are up to 2in (5cm) in diameter. The tree is small and elegant with a slightly weeping habit.
However, having seen all the named varieties in fruit at the National Fruit Collection in Brogdale, there is very little difference between them.
Medlar Jelly recipe
Use an equal mix of bletted fruit and fresh fruit to get enough pectin for a good set. Don’t mash or squeeze the fruit, otherwise the jelly will be cloudy.
1kg medlars, halved
Juice of half a lemon
500g caster sugar, approx
1 vanilla pod, split along its length
Put the medlars in a large pan with the lemon juice and just enough water to cover. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for an hour. Strain overnight through a jelly bag or muslin into a bowl.
Measure the juice and pour into a clean pan. For each 500ml of juice, add 375g of caster sugar. Add the vanilla pod and warm gently, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Turn up the heat and boil, without stirring, for five minutes. Test the jelly for the setting point by dribbling a little jelly on to a chilled saucer, leaving it for a minute and then pushing it with your finger. If it wrinkles, it’s done. Allow another few minutes’ boiling if the setting point hasn’t been reached and test again. Repeat if necessary.
Pour into sterilised, warm jars and seal.