Rehabilitating a Rotten Fruit

Blossom of Common Medlar (Mespilus germanica)
Photo Credit: Mel Etitis [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons

Medlar (Mespilus germanica)

The Medlar is a fruit with a rotten reputation. Is there another fruit that has been disparaged to the extent of the Medlar? What can a poor, minor fruit to do against dishonourable allusions in the literature of both Chaucer and Shakespeare? The story of the Medlar has all the makings of a Shakespearean drama. It’s a tale of forgotten fruit and neglect. There’s mistaken identity and an unexpected sibling.

Birds and the Bees

This blog is far too young to explicitly explain Shakespeare’s allusions to the Medlar’s lack of chastity and prostitution. Botany is not normally known for its prudery. However, advent blogs fall into the Pantomine season and target family entertainment.

The birds and the bees avoid spamming bots. Twitter’s extreme botanical sensitivity has to be approached as if in the presence of a prim maiden aunt at Christmas. Why so vague? The problem is not the Medlar’s behaviour. It’s how it looks to those with far too much creative imagination.

The unusual-looking fruit of the Medlar (Mespilus germanica)
© Karen Netto (Andrews): Medlar at RHS Harvest Festival Show 2018

Pomes and Accessories

Medlar fruit is a pome. There are a number of redundant terms such as false fruit, spurious fruit, pseudo-fruit and pseudocarp. The correct, current terminology is an accessory fruit. Apples, strawberries and pineapples are also accessory fruits. In addition to a mature ovary and seeds, they all contain a lot of additional external tissue. The wide-spreading, persistent sepals and hairy brown or red-tinged skin give the Medlar its highly distinctive appearance.

Unexpected Family

Medlars are members of the Rosaceae or Rose Family. These small trees of 5-7 metres tall or multi-stemmed shrubs have been around for 3,000 years. Mespilus germanica was cultivated by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Discovering an unknown sibling as late as 1990 is a tale worthy of Shakespeare. 

A New World ‘usurper’ was discovered in Arkansas in the United States: Mespilus canescens or Stern’s Medlar. The fruit is a deep glossy red when ripe as opposed to brown. It is critically endangered with just 25 known plants on protected, private property. Genetic analysis has suggested that it may be a hybrid between Mespilus germanica and 1 or 2 native Crataegus (Hawthorn). According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, the parentage is still in dispute.

Medlar tree in the Dean Garnier Garden at Winchester Cathedral
Photo Credit: Trish Steele via Wikimedia Commons

Not of German Origin

The family intrigues do not end there. It seems Mespilus germanica’s own origins were called into question. It was once mistakenly thought to come from Germany. In fact, it is native to Northern Iran and found in southwest Asia and southeastern Europe. The Medlar lost popularity as a source of winter vitamin C after Victorian times in Britain, but it remains popular in Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria.

Mistaken Identity

The Japanese Medlar or Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is commonly mistaken and sold as the Common Medlar (Mespilus germanica). It doesn’t even look the same.

Tasty Nottingham

There are several varieties of Mespilus germanica. The Nottingham variety is regarded as the best with its small, tasty fruit. The trees bear showy, white, solitary flowers as shown in the photograph at the very top. It offers good autumn colour and is self-fertile. You only need one tree. The Medlar trees are commonly planted in sheltered sites as strong winds can damage the flowers.

Medlar fruit surrounded by its leaves in a sheltered garden site
© Karen Netto (Andrews): Medlar at the National Trust property of Cotehele near Saltash, Cornwall

Unique Fruit 

To modern, squeamish sensibilities eating fruit that looks rotten, is odd. This unique fruit has to be ‘bletted’ before it is soft and sweet enough to eat. 

How to Eat Medlars

There is interest in reintroducing the Medlar into the British diet. Winter availability was a major factor in its past popularity. It is most commonly eaten raw after bletting. It can also be used for jams, jellies and wines. 

Two Ways to Blet

Bletting is carried out in one of two ways. Either the fruit is harvested from the trees in late autumn and stored in straw until it appears ‘over-ripe’ or ‘rotten’. The second method is to leave the fruit on the trees to blet. This makes fruit look like Christmas baubles on bare, winter branches.

Past Medicinal Uses

The bletted Medlar pulp or syrup was historically used as a popular remedy against gastroenteritis.  Its astringent, healing properties were still appreciated in the 1920s. It was used as a diuretic, to treat constipation, kidney and bladder stones.

Research

By comparison with other fruits, the Medlar has received little attention from researchers. It contains significant antioxidants. The bark may yet prove of medicinal interest.

The cracked bark of the Medlar could prove of interest to medical research
© Karen Netto (Andrews): Bark on Medlar tree in Eastcote House Gardens

The Future?

There is general interest in reintroducing minor fruit species in Britain and Europe as part of conservation strategies and more sustainable land management. The Medlar may not be suited to mass production, but it can prove of significant economic value for local economies and smallholdings.

The Medlar may yet see a revival as communities seek to produce more food locally in response to climate change. As with many quality wines, sometimes the special taste of a fruit due to its soil and environment simply cannot be reproduced elsewhere. 

The Medlar will remain best rotten, but perhaps its reputation can be rehabilitated?

Copyright Note 

© Karen Netto (Andrews)

These pages illustrate my love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. I love sharing. This blog is a showcase for my own photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics.

© Karen Netto (Andrews) 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Netto (Andrews) and karencommunications.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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