Several years ago when we began to plan our 1/2 acre display orchard here at Cricket Hill Garden, we were sure to leave a few spots open for medlars (Mespilus germanica). This strange fruit is closely related to hawthorns, more distantly to pears and apples. It reached the height of its popularity in the time of the Tudors, but today it is just an obscure horticultural oddity. Our trees have been in the ground for just three years and we find that this species has many traits which make it ideal for the modern garden. The medlar's small stature, virtual immunity to pests and diseases, as well as its delicious fruit make a good candidate for any backyard orchard.
Medlars are in the Rosaceae family; the soft pink to white spring flowers closely resemble those of a wild rose. The unusual looking opened-ended fruit have generated many unfavorable comparisons over the centuries. Take for example cul de chien (dog's arse), a French nickname for the fruit. The trees require training when young to establish an upright form. After that, they require little pruning thanks to the slow growth rate of mature trees.
Medlars grow into small trees which are covered in soft pink-white flowers in the spring. Fall foliage is quite attractive, with the leaves turning hues of golden red and orange. Medlar's are self-fertile, meaning only one tree is needed to produce fruit.
Medlars have long been put to a variety of culinary uses. The engraving reproduced above left is a recipe for a medlar tart from A Book of Fruits & Flowers. Shewing The Nature and Use of them, either for Meat or Medicine, published in England in 1653. Here is a modern take on this classic dessert. Medlar jams and jellies are still produced commercially in the UK, but if you want to try the Victorian treat of medlar cheese, you will have to make it yourself.
The fruit should be picked after a few frosts, when the leaves of the tree have fallen. At this point the fruit will still be hard and inedible. In order to ripen or "blett" the fruit, it should be stored in a cool, dry place until the pulp softens and turns a light brown. Ripe medlars are quite delicious, with a flavor similar to spiced apple sauce.
The early 20th century English scholar and wine connoisseur George Saintsbury wrote in his classic Notes on a Cellar that "the one fruit which seems to me to go best with all wine, from hock to sherry and from claret to port, is the Medlar - an admirable and distinguished thing in itself, and a worthy mate for the best of liquors."
Barring a latter day renaissance, medlars will never reach the popularity which they enjoyed in Medieval and early modern Europe. The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne dictated that medlars be planted in all of his royal estates, while Shakespeare referenced the fruit is several of his plays. The fruit appears in art from this period. It is a boutonniere for Giuseppe Arcimboldo's 1573 painting Autumn (above left). A medlar tree also appears twice in the wooded landscape of the famous Unicorn Tapestries (above right) at the Met's medieval Cloisters museum.