The medlar is a curious tree but one which has had a fascination
since ancient times. Originating in south western Asia and thought to have been
introduced to Britain, along with the fig, the sweet chestnut and walnut, by
the Romans, the medlar has managed to retain its mysterious, not quite benign,
character down to the present day. Polite society where the fruit would have
been served as a sweetmeat would have eschewed the robust vernacular names of
‘openarse’ and ‘dog’s arse’, descriptive terms
if you examine the blossom end of the fruit.
This member of the rose family makes an attractive garden tree eventually reaching to 6 metres with an individual shape which becomes gnarled and interesting relatively quickly. The handsome dark-green leaves can get to 15 cm long and turn a rich yellow-brown in autumn. The attractive white solitary flowers are borne in late spring to early summer, followed by the curious fruit reminiscent of a truncated pear with the characteristic long sepals partially enclosing the end. Hard-shelled seeds form in each of the five carpels and the medlar may be propagated from these, or by budding.
Medlar may have been popular on Roman and medieval tables, but we seem to have lost the taste for it since then. The fruit are as hard as a stone at first and need to be stored or bletted to make them soft enough to eat. At this stage, if they have not rotted or gone mouldy, they are rich brown and sweetish, something like mashed together date and dried apricot. Certainly an acquired taste, but a novelty for the end of a meal accompanied perhaps with a glass of port and some mature cheese.
A jelly can be made from the fruit and this is perhaps a more useful product, tasting sweet with an astringent sharpness that goes well with cheese or meat.
Modern cultivars are available today such as ‘Nottingham’, and these tend to have marginally larger fruit.
It is a tree with a fascinating history and although not native seems to have acquired a quintessential Englishness that makes it a classic for the garden. Its small size and habit together with its other attributes ensure that it will always be a talking point whether in the garden or on the dining table, so I have no hesitation in recommending medlar for the domestic garden. There are two fine specimens in the Botanic Gardens, to be found at the museum end of the upper herbaceous border. I hope that when the fruit is beginning to fall, someone there will pick it up and rediscover its unique qualities. As Du Hamel said, it is more a tree of fantasy than utility, and all the better for that.
The two trees are beside the cement arch at the Museum end of the upper herbaceous border.
Photos taken in Belfast Botanic Gardens in 2009. Copyright: Friends of Belfast Botanic Gardens.
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