Medlar (Mespilus germanica) is a late-season specialty fruit that has nearly vanished from our tables during the winter holidays. Although medlar is of ancient origin, it is still grown by gardening enthusiasts. Medlar fruit grows on small trees or shrubs and is related to pear and hawthorn. However, the medlar's round-shaped fruit range from one to three inches in diameter (Figure 1).
The fruit is harvested in late fall after a hard frost and is allowed to ripen and soften by a process known as bletting. During bletting, the astringent, acidic, and bitter fruit undergo browning and other changes, resulting pulp with complex, sweet, date and citrusy-like flavor with a slightly grainy texture. Bletted pulp is scooped out with a spoon and is consumed fresh or baked, roasted, made into jelly, brandy, cider, or used in desserts.
A snippet about medlar occurs in Greek poetry in the 7th century BC, indicating ancient cultivation of this fruit. Medlar was transported throughout the warm climates of Europe, where it was grown in palace courtyards, monastery gardens, and village greens. Because of the open calyx-end of the fruit, it was known as open-arse, or dog's, monkey's, or donkey's bottom by the less genteel folk during the Medieval period. Nevertheless, medlar popularity peaked in England by the 1600's and was consumed as frequently as apples, pears, quince, and mulberries. Thereafter, medlar began to lose favor until WWII when British citizens were encouraged to forage for this fruit when food supplies were lean.
For adventurous gardeners, trees with medlar grafted onto pear or quince rootstock can be ordered from online nurseries. Most of the cultivars, such as Marron, Sultan, Breda Giant, Pucia Super Mol, Macrocarpa, and Monstruesue de Evrenoff originated from Europe. Medlar can be grown in Missouri and in southern regions of the United States. Trees perform best in full sun and are adaptable to many soil types. When planting a grafted tree, the graft union should be two inches above the soil surface. Staking the tree is recommended to prevent breakage at the graft union. Because the showy, white medlar flowers are self-fertile, pollination and fruit set will occur without planting another tree. Grafted trees usually begin fruiting in the third or fourth growing season. Although medlar is purportedly susceptible to some of the same pests that frequent apple, problematic ones are unknown due to the scarce cultivation of this tree in Missouri.
Medlar fruit can be harvested in October or November. At this time, fruit can be collected and brought indoors for bletting in a cool room for several weeks before it is palatable (Figure 2). Alternatively, fruit can be bletted by leaving it on the tree for one or two frosts where temperatures dip to 24 to 26°F before harvest. Although the pulp of bletted fruit may appear brown and over-ripe, it is at the perfect stage for sharing it with holiday guests.