Medlar – Herb of the Month

By Chrissy Moore

meldar line drawing croppedMedlar (Mespilus germanica) isn’t the first tree you think of to include in your herb garden, but it certainly gets high marks for obscure and unusual. At least by today’s terms. While we may not hear its name invoked in modern conversation with anything close to regularity, medlar has, in fact, had a long association with humans for thousands of years.

Its center of origin is somewhat in question, with various taxonomists and botanists shifting the borders this way and that, but in general, medlar can be considered a southwest Asia native, including the Balkan Peninsula. Though comfortable in that location, the Romans and Greeks spread the tree far and wide in their travels through Europe. Beyond that, botanists freely point to the tree’s adaptability, noting all of the countries from southern to central Europe in which medlar has naturalized. Mespilus can even be found growing as far north as The Netherlands, where specimen trees were planted in parks and gardens. In its native range, it can be found growing in elevations up to ~5500 feet in forest clearings. 

Medlar Range mapMedlar is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae), apparent when you look at its ripe fruit, which showcases a persistent calyx typical of other rose family members, such as rose hips and apples. Hardy in Zones 5 to 8, it is generally considered a small tree, growing up to 20 feet by 20 feet, with pleasantly Medlar's twisting canopy, Netherlandstwisting canopy branches as the tree matures. The five-inch-long leaves are lance-shaped and somewhat coarse in texture owing to the hairs on the upper and lower surfaces. Their dark green hue makes an attractive backdrop for its blossoms. Medlar’s fall color is a mix of green, yellow, and burnished orange, giving it that coveted “three season” appeal. All else being equal, its fall color can make it a superb horticultural addition even in smaller gardens.

Medlar’s approximately two-inch wide, dainty, white flowers—the petals of which are reminiscent of mildly wrinkled fabric—appear in mid- to late-spring, depending upon the region in which it is grown. The flower’s center is a flurry of anthers much like a single-petaled rose blossom, though it lacks any noticeable scent. Because the flowers are showy, it may be worth siting this unfamiliar tree a bit closer in to allow for more in-depth inspection. Speaking of siting, medlar prefers full sun to partial shade with some protection from strong winds. It does not like full-on drought conditions, but fairs well throughout much of the temperate region.

Mespilus germanica flower (1)All formalities aside regarding its growing habits, medlar is most famous for its fruit, which, in all honesty, can be a quandary to the uninitiated. The brown pome ripens in the fall, but if one were to try eating it right away, they would be faced with a hard, bitter thing about the size of a large gumball (but not nearly so fun to eat). Medlar fruit is similar to native persimmons in that they must go through a prep-stage before consumption. Persimmons need a frost before becoming edible, while medlars need a go-sit-by-yourself-in-the-corner-for-a-few-weeks regimen before the fruit becomes palatable. This process is called “bletting,” and it isn’t until after the fruits have been fully bletted that the interiors become soft and edible with no trace of their bitter tannins remaining.

Unripe and bletted (or ripe) medlar fruit

The medlar was well known in Europe during the Middle Ages, where it was said to have held a high place among cultivated fruits. Today in Europe it is passing into obscurity. Though very generally cultivated in England in the 1600s and 1700s and “common in [English] gardens in the south” even in the 1800s (the fruits regularly brought to market), it was recently characterized as “neglected and forgotten” and “difficult to locate” there. In continental Europe, too, its increasing rarity has been noted, the fruit being “of no more interest” (Baird and Thieret, 1989).

medlar_jelly_el_ltdPrior to the widespread use of sugarcane, medlar was a preferred sweet ingredient, but owing to the difficulty in processing, it likely fell out of favor, even in Europe, in deference to more easily obtainable fruit from the tropics, such as bananas and oranges. Even so, a few determined individuals, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, are trying to revive interest in the tree, and some have made great strides in bringing back the requisite foodstuffs, like medlar cheeses and jams, that can sometimes be found in boutique stores or online markets. 

Speaking of the United States, medlar never became popular in this country for unknown reasons. Baird and Thieret, in their review of the literature, state:

In the United States the medlar has never been well known. Indeed, it is hardly even known here. Among those individuals who ought to have heard of it—botanists and horticulturists—many have not. Among those who have heard of it, only a few have actually seen the plant—“probably not one…among one hundred”; fewer yet have seen the fruit—“not one in five hundred”; and almost none has eaten the fruit (Baird and Thieret, 1989).

It is unfortunate to think that a once-prized fruit tree is near impossible to locate, even horticulturally, but so it is. Despite its relative obscurity, if you are up for a jaunt around Europe, there are certainly specimens of medlar that can be found growing on estates or in parks, where one might get up close and personal to examine this apparent horticultural anomaly. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) has mapped out the locations of medlar trees within its boundaries, and the Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora gives a brief description of the tree with a link to BSBI’s map. Going even farther afield, the Mespilus germanica 9-9-2021 (1)organization, Monumental trees, has compiled a web site (www.monumentaltrees.com) replete with documented locations of various “monumental” tree species, including Mespilus germanica, throughout Europe. You’d be hard-pressed to find a similar compilation of medlar sites in the United States, but it is more than likely that specimens and cultivars (of which there are a few) of medlar may be located in various botanical gardens and arboreta around the country, depending on climate. There is a 40+ year old specimen in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., but its structure is not nearly as expressive (or impressive) as those in Europe, a result of its original siting in the garden, which has become cramped over time.

16th century painting of medlar, poppy anemone, and pear by Hoefnagel and BocskayTurning the page, figuratively speaking, all one needs is a quick search of the literature to discover that references abound discussing medlar’s less than proper common names. Owing to the fruit’s somewhat bawdy appearance, numerous authors in centuries past, including Chaucer, Shakespeare, de Cervantes, and various other 19th century writers, as well as everyday people in Europe, thought to nickname the fruit “cul de chien” (French for dog’s arse) or some iteration thereof in one’s native tongue. Shakespeare took it one step further, calling medlar an “open-arse.” Thank goodness no one ever pointed that out in my high school literature class. We’d never have heard the end of it! (No pun intended.) In contrast to my more prudish sensibilities, Shakespeare scholar and avowed medlar lover Gerit Quealy explained to me during her recent visit to see the National Herb Garden’s medlar specimen, that the medlar is one of her “favorite botanical references in all of Shakespeare’s works,” because, as she states appreciatively in her book, Botanical Shakespeare, it is “a fruit fraught with metaphor (Quealy, 2017).” No kidding! Readers, you can take it from there….

In researching medlar, I asked former National Herb Garden intern, Zainab Pashaei, who is of Persian heritage, if she was familiar with the tree, it being native to her father’s home country, Iran. Though not personally familiar with it, according to Zainab, medlar is mostly consumed by northern Iranians, and those that travel north near the Alborz Mountain Range will be very familiar with it. (Zainab’s relatives live farther south.) She explained further that muşmula is the Turkish word for the medlar fruit, while the Persians may call it marmala or azgil (Farsi), although I have since learned that azgil is often confused with loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), which is also eaten in Iran.

This distinction is certainly with a difference, as they are two separate plants, and reiterates the importance of using correct nomenclature. On the other hand, it vividly demonstrates that correctly identifying species across languages, cultures, and hundreds of years of usage is not for the faint-hearted. Despite its literary and culinary assignments in other parts of Europe, the medlar has also been employed medicinally in some cultures. For example, the Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden located in Istanbul, Turkey, reports that the fruit is used as an antidiarrheal, and the seed’s diuretic properties are incorporated into a medicinal tea.

Given medlar’s curious, though extremely interesting, history of use in culinary traditions, in medicine, and certainly in the creative arts, it is definitely a tree worthy of investigation, and perhaps even more so, of growing. Just be prepared to explain its many virtues to your garden guests, as it is highly likely that few, if any, of them will have encountered this unique herbal tree before.

Photo Credits: 1 & 2) Mespilus germanica line drawing and map (Baird and Thieret); 3) Medlar twisting branches (www.monumentaltrees.com); 4) Medlar flower (C. Moore); 5) Bletted medlar fruit (Creative Commons); 6) Medlar jelly (www.partridges.co.uk); 7) Medlar fruit (C. Moore); 8) Medlar, Poppy, and Pear painting (Joris Hoefnagel and Georg Bocskay, J. Paul Getty Museum); 9) Medlar fruit/fall color (Creative Commons, ngawangchodron) and Loquat fruit (Creative Commons, Andres Bertens).

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.

References

Baird, J. R. and J. W. Thieret. The Medlar (Mespilus germanica, Rosaceae) from antiquity to obscurity. Economic Botany. Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1989), pp. 328-372. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4255177?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 8/13/2021.

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Interactive map. https://bsbi.org/maps?taxonid=2cd4p9h.vnw. Accessed 8/16/2021.

Harvey, P. D. A. Garden History, vol. 10, no. 2, 1982, pp. 172–175. JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/1586748. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Monumental Trees. Mespilus germanica. https://www.monumentaltrees.com/en/europe-mespilusgermanica/. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Mespilus germanica. https://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/plant/mespilus-germanica. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.

Pashaei, Zainab (personal communication). 8/3/2021.

Quealy, Gerit. (personal communication). 5/2021.

Quealy, Gerit. 2017. Botanical Shakespeare: An illustrated compendium of all the flowers, fruits, herbs, trees, seeds, and grasses cited by the world’s greatest playwright. New York: Harper Design.

Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plant Garden. Book No. 35. 2015. Page 237. https://ztbb.org/. Accessed 13 Aug. 2021.


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

9 thoughts on “Medlar – Herb of the Month

  1. The Elizabethan and Shakespeare Garden in Mellon Park, Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA has a mature medlar tree. Our W. Pa Unit of the Herb Society has made medlar jelly from its fruit when we can gather enough before the squirrels take it!

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  2. Pingback: Medlar – Herb of the Month – thelivinghealth.net

  3. Thanks for the interesting post, Chrissy. It brought back memories. As a new HSA member way back when, I helped in the New York Unit Herb Garden at John Jay Homestead. They had a medlar tree in the garden. As I was fascinated by it, the garden committee head encouraged me to take the fruit home to “cure it” and share it with the committee. I eagerly brought it home and put it it the store room of my Victorian house. A few weeks later when I went to see if it was ready to eat, I found, much to my embarrassment, that mice had gotten in to it and consumed all of it. So much for that!

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