Sunday 23 May 2021

The Essential Guide to probably everything you need to know about Growing Medlar - Mespilus germanica

Medlars are ornamental, flowering trees with pretty white blossom, good autumn colours and fruits which are edible, and deliciously unusual!  The luxurious fruit is ready in the wintertime, providing a rich and fresh snack when little other fruit, except perhaps Persimmon, is available. An easily maintained tree with a lot going for it, welcome to our Essential Guide to probably everything you need to know about Growing Medlar - Mespilus germanica.

During this post we'll take a close look at these incredible plants including how to grow them, the uses of Medlar and growing them in polycultures and in permaculture gardens.


The common Medlar  - Mespilus germanica, is widely considered the only specie in the genus Mespilus, however if you're looking online, you might stumble upon a second proposed species in the same genus, Mespilus canescens although this plant is also known as ×Crataemespilus canescens, or Stern's Medlar.  So there's a story behind how this particular plant has an alias.

Jane Ellenbogen Stern, an environmentalist from Pine Bluff, Arkansas was leading a bird-monitoring project back in 1969 at a small remnant of tallgrass prairie and bottomland woods when she noticed an unusual plant that resembled a hawthorn (Crataegus).  She observed that this plant was notably shrubbier in nature, and covered in white flowers. She collected a branch sample and notified regional biologists and experts, and this news spread among other plant professionals who reportedly spent nearly fifty years attempting to provide a proper identification and name. The plant is now recognized as an unusual naturally occurring hybrid and is officially known as Stern’s medlar (×Crataemespilus canescens), but still referenced in some literature as being a Mespilus.

We'll be focusing this post on Mespilus germanica, a plant that we've inherited in a few of our gardens and learned to love and even respect for its uniqueness.

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Medlar - Mespilus germanica 

Latin name - Mespilus germanica
Common name - Medlar
Family -  Rosaceae

History - Mespilus germanica is a plant with a long history. It is known to have been around for over 3000 years and the fruit was commonly eaten from Roman through to Medieval times when it was quite popular.

Medlar fruits featured in a medieval tapestry from around 1500. Image/Alamy

There are several references to Medlar in literature - mentioned by everyone from Shakespeare, Chaucer to D.H. Lawrence, although often less than favourably, probably due to the fact that the fruit must be bletted before eating, leading to negative connotations around the idea of rotting but also due to its shape. Apparently for nearly a millennium, the fruit was referred to as "open-arse , an obvious reference to the appearance of its large calyx.  Since then Medlars have declined in popularity, and these days they are generally more unusually found when compared to other fruits which were taken into cultivation, like apple and plums, and they are certainly far less common than imports like fig or persimmon.

Growing Range -  USDA 5-8. Medlar is native to southwest Asia and southeast Europe, feeling right at home on the Balkan peninsula but growing well in north and western Europe too. Widely grown in the UK, it has reportedly naturalized in southern parts where winters are milder. 

Description -  Medlar is a slow-growing and small tree typically growing to 6m tall in a fairly compact form.  It is generally a short-lived tree, with a life span typically in the range of 30 -60 years. Highly ornamental large white flowers appear in May and dot themselves among the foliage, creating a pretty display.

The fruit that emerges from these stunning blooms is not quite so delicate in its appearance. Fruits are round, around 3-6cm long, brown with a fuzzy outer coat, and a large, open calyx. As forementioned this appearance led to Medlars being rather crudely referred to, but perhaps a more appealing description of the fruit generally is that it resembles a cross between a small, russetted apple and a large hawthorn. The fruits ripen from late autumn - early winter  (depending on species and cultivar) and have a luxurious and delightful texture and flavour, a heavenly puree that usually contains 5 pips or seeds. The fruit does not always ripen fully in cooler temperate zones such as Britain and needs bletting (a process of leaving fruit to go past the ripe point).  The leaves are dark green, large, simple, elliptic to oblong; 8-15 cm long with quite possibly some of the most breathtaking autumn colours to perhaps rival even the cherry tree. Bark is grey-brown and plated on a gnarled trunk, further enhancing the decorative qualities of this tree.

Sexual Reproduction -The species is hermaphrodite (has both male and female organs) and is self-fertile. The self fertile flowers which grow at the end of the stem are simple with five white petals which open up in late spring - early summer.  Behind the flower are 5 green sepals, which become prominent when the fruit is formed (the large calyx or open arse forming!). Fruits are borne on the tips of the main shoots and side growths.

Medlar flower opening

Light Preferences - Medlars thrive in full sun but can grow well in partial shade. For optimum fruit production plant in a sunny position.

Water needs - Young trees planted out in the spring or autumn need regular watering while establishing. The soil should be free draining as the plants will not grow well in waterlogged soils. It appears to have some drought tolerance, but not typically a tree we would choose for a dry area.  Having said that, the established and more mature trees in our garden cope very well with hot and dry summers, needing no extra irrigation.

Habitat -  Woodland edge and hedgerows, in a sunny, fairly sheltered location.

Hardiness  - USDA -5 - 8  Tolerates a wide range of climates, and also may fruit in some cooler climes due to the fact that the bloom time is comparatively late (May - June) so the blossom is rarely damaged by frost. Although some sources describe the Medlar as being unable to tolerate strong winds, in our experience they fare quite well, although strong winds around the bloom time may cause damage to the flowers.

Ecology - The flowers are attractive to many insect pollinators, as well as bees, and the fruit provides a valuable food source for birds, particularly as the fruits ripen in the early winter when there is often not much other fruit around.

 Medlar - Mespilus germanica - Spring Flowers - Autumn Leaf fall and Winter Fruits 

Where to Plant

Climatic Limitations - The Medlar has successfully spread to regions as diverse as south-east Asia to north-west Europe. That plant will not produce fruit in tropical climates as it requires winter chill (similar to apples) to flower. They grow well, crop well and produce good quality fruit in nearly all parts of Europe. They should always be planted in full sun for optimal fruit production but will produce good quantities of fruit in partial shade (4-6 hrs of direct sunlight a day).

Soil -  Ideally Medlars like a well drained slightly acid (pH 6.5) loam soil but are easily pleased and  will tolerate a wide range of soils except for very alkali or chalky soils.  Free drainage is essential, as they dislike waterlogging.

Location - Medlars can be grown in the lower canopy or canopy for a smaller forest garden. For cultivars the rootstock will ultimately determine size of the tree, along with other factors such as growing conditions, and the chosen pruning and training regime. 
Pollination/Fertilisation - The species is hermaphrodite (has both male and female organs) and is pollinated by bees and other insects. The plant is self-fertile, although will benefit from cross pollination.

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Feeding, Irrigation and Care

Feeding -  Medlars generally have very low fertilizer requirements, When planting out new trees top dressing the planting hole with  20 - 30 L of compost and repeating this in early spring for the first 2 years will be more than enough to get them going. After this they should be fine, especially so if you are growing the tree in polycultures.  

Irrigation -. Young trees should be mulched well each spring and irrigated for the first 2-3  years with 30 L of water every 2-4 weeks without rain.  Once established, Medlars do not usually require irrigation unless you are experiencing an extremely dry period for a prolonged period of time.
Weeding - Mulching plants with a 10 -20 cm deep mulch each spring and pulling weeds that start to grow through in the summer is good practice when the plants are young. As the trees mature they grow well amongst other plants of all kinds.

Pruning - Once established Medlars don't need regular pruning. To encourage a good strong tree like-form early on, cut away all suckers and lower branches so that the tree has a clear trunk.  Medlars then only really need pruning to remove dead, damaged, diseased or crossing branches. Pruning should be performed towards the end of dormancy, in February/early March.

Harvesting - Medlars are ready to harvest once all the leaves have dropped off in the autumn, and one or more hard frosts have occurred, kick-starting the bletting process. Fruits should never be pulled roughly - when they are ready to be picked the fruit stem should break away with ease. That said, you can harvest them before a frost and leave them inside to ripen, although this can take a while which may be viewed as positive feature, as the fruit can be at the point of eating in the heart of winter when fresh fruit from the garden is a treat indeed.

Propagation - Cuttings of mature wood are traditionally grafted on Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) rootstock. However, Hawthorn tends to sucker heavily leading to a rise in popularity of using Quince rootstocks. It's possible to use seedling Mespilus germanica rootstock which has better compatibility and produces semi-dwarfing trees although Medlar are tricky to grow from seed, as they have very hard and impermeable seed coats and apparently won't typically germinate until they have gone through two winters.

Potential Problems

Pest and Disease -  Medlar suffer few disease and insect pests and we've never experienced any problems with the Medlars we grow or any that we've seen. While researching this blog, however, it appears that if any disease is going to trouble the Medlars it may be Brown Rot.  As the name suggests, brown blemishes appear on the fruit which then softens until it becomes mushy, and if it continues to spread then the fruit becomes entirely one of the most common problems. 

Medlar Uses

Fruit -  As a rule of thumb, Medlars should remain on the tree until the leaves start to fall in the autumn and until after the first frost or two of the season. We usually start harvesting the fruits in November, although there are variations in this from year to year, and depending on when we encounter our first frost. Sometimes this is as late as mid December, which is actually great timing as it's pleasant to have access to fresh fruit at that time of the year. If you are picking them and they feel hard then they need to be stored and made edible through bletting.  We usually place the fruits on a windowsill, or in a wooden fruit bowl and find that they soften within a couple of weeks. If you're picking the fruit soft then it should be fine to eat immediately.

Wood - The wood of the Medlar tree is ideal for turning as it it hard, fine grained and a beautiful colour. Can be used to make walking sticks and vases and is virtually unbreakable. 

Erosion control:  Medlar typically has medium depth roots and so has some potential for erosion control. 

Soil Improver and Biomass: Medlars are often grafted of Quince rootstocks that will sucker freely in some cases and can make a good source of biomass if pruned annual and applied to the base of the tree as mulch.

Animal Fodder - Pigs and sheep reportedly graze and enjoy the leaves, while the fruits provide decent forage for wildlife in the early winter. Pigs enjoy the fruits as do rabbits.

Leaves -  The leaves are dark green, spear shaped and can grow to be fairly large - as much as 15 cm long and 4 cm wide. The autumn colours are one of the best in the garden, with leaves turning a spectacular and deep red in the autumn. 

Landscaping - Being low maintenance and drought tolerant make Medlar very easy plants to incorporate into different polycultures. They can be considered for the upper canopy, lower canopy or shrub layer

Image taken from Gardenitsa showing Medlars that are grown mainly for ornamental value in Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, UK

Hedging / Windbreak - There are some reports of Medlars growing wild in hedges, although this is likely due to seed spread from birds who have eaten the fruits of cultivated varieties.  Although not a plant you typically associate as a hedging plant, Medlars can be quite shrub-like in their form, and since they are fairly wind tolerant, they may well be great candidates for a windbreak or hedge. As forementioned, it's worth noting that strong winds (in particular cold spring winds) can damage the flowers and reduce insects ability to pollinate and will therefore affect the amount of fruit production.

Bee Fodder - Bees are very fond of Medlar flowers. The nectar arises from a yellowish circle at the base of the blossoms and attracts a large variety of bee species including honeybees and bumblebees.

Medicinal uses - Some reported medicinal benefits are that the fruit is a natural laxative, yet we also found that it has a reputation for helping with diarrhea. This conflict of action may be dependent on which stage of ripeness the fruit in consumed at.  The fruit also may help heal or eliminate oral abscesses. Seeds contain the toxic hydrocyanic acid and so caution should be taken.

Taken from Ghassem Habibi Bibalani and Fatemeh Mosazadeh-Sayadmahaleh's detailed paper

Victoria Bezhitashvili, a member of our 2018 Polyculture Study team, wrote a thesis on the traditional knowledge and use of Medlar in rural Bulgaria. Victoria has kindly shared her work and you can find it here.

Medlar Yields

A mature Medlar tree can yield some 80 to 90 kilos of fruit.  Trees generally start producing from between 2 -  4 years of age.

A young Medlar of 4 years producing well in our market/forest garden, Aponia 

If you're harvesting the fruit after a frost or two, the chances are the fruit may be bletted and ready to eat, in which case it will fall off the tree easily as you pick. If you harvest before a frost then the fruit will be hard and inedible and need to blet after period of time indoors. Pick in late autumn and store in a cool, dry place for a period of time that can range from 2 weeks - short months. The flesh should be soft and mushy when edible. The flavour is like an exotic apple with a rich butter-like texture.

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Medlar Polycultures

We published an article about a Medlar polyculture called Medlaronia many years ago. It's a productive polyculture that will provide an early-mid winter harvest of delicious Medlar fruit, highly nutritious Aronia berries, a year-round crop of excellent salad onions, and has the added benefits of mineral accumulation and nitrogen fixation.

Representation of a mature Medlaronia polyculture

Medlar Polyculture 2D plan

Due to the relatively small size of a mature Medlar tree, it's a suitable tree for smaller gardens and you can easily fit a number of fruiting shrubs and herbs under and around the canopy. We have an excellent Rubus idaeus cv. - Raspberry patch growing under a mature Medlar in the forest garden with a carpet of Allium ursinum - Wild Garlic  growing under the raspberries and the Medlar itself sits under Castanea sativa - Sweet Chestnut and still produces large quantities of fruit each year.

Medlar cultivars -  Fruiting Plants that we offer

Medlar -  Mespilus germanica -  'Mesten'  and  'Mesten Seedless'

Fruit - Abundant fruits ripening from November - January
Sex and Pollination - Hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by bees and other insects.The plant is self-fertile. 
Hardiness - Full hardy withstanding temperatures as low as
Leaves -  Large, dark green and spear shaped 
Water needs - Moderate. Some drought tolerance.

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The Medlar (Mespilus germanica, Rosaceae) from Antiquity to Obscurity, JOHN R. BAIRD 2 AND JOHN W. THIERET - Medicinal  - pruning - care guide - overview,was%20covered%20in%20white%20flowers.&text=The%20plant%20is%20now%20recognized,medlar%20(%C3%97Crataemespilus%20canescens).,about%20three%20centimetres%20in%20diameter.,large%20%22calyx%22%20or%20bottom.