When so many fruit trees offer an abundance of pink and white blossom in spring, it's striking to find one that doesn't. The medlar tree (Mespilus germanica) may not foam with flowers, but the large individual white blooms, against long glossy leaves, are very handsome.
So why isn't it widely grown? Well, not many trees have a greater image problem. First, its tomato-sized, golden-green fruit usually have to soften and go brown before you can eat them. People delight in saying the fruit has to rot.
Secondly, you constantly read that it is an "acquired taste".
Thirdly, the fruit is also known by a name that recalls the unattractive end of a dog (in French it's "cul de chien").
Unfair, unfair and…well, OK, there is something in its appearance that recalls that part of the canine anatomy.
Why You Should Grow a Medlar Tree
Let's reassess. The fruit from my tree is sweet, slightly citrus, with overtones of stewed apples. Delicious. I think it's far more likely that it's the idea that they have to soften that is the "acquired taste", but there is a difference between rotting (which makes a fruit unpalatable) and "bletting", the softening process which turns a medlar's tartness to sugars. The flesh becomes a creamy (albeit brown) puree – giving you processed fruit straight from the tree!
The tree is also self-fertile, so you only need one, and is particularly free of pests and diseases. Once the formative shape has been created in its first years, you really only have to remove any dead, diseased or overcrowded branches. Regular pruning is not needed.
The medlar can be grown as a bush on a dwarfing rootstock, but as a tree it has a lovely spreading, almost weeping habit and works as a half-standard (3.6-4.5m (12-15 ft) high) in a bed or, being so ornamental, as a specimen tree in a lawn. At Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, UK, they've even topiarised theirs.
Several cultivars exist, including "Royal" which some say can be eaten before bletting. "Nottingham" is best-known and most widely available, with a good flavour.
Where to Grow a Medlar
Medlars aren't really fussy. They prefer a warm, sheltered site with moist, well-drained soil (don't we all?) but will do well in most soils, so long as they're not excessively chalky or badly drained. It's worth watering them in very dry spells, especially in the first three or four years of life.
Strong winds can damage the flowers, so it's best to ensure they're not too exposed. They will tolerate partial shade - mine is at the back of an overshadowed, east-facing bed that only receives sun for a couple of hours a day, but it still produces well.
Harvesting Medlar Fruit
Some people leave the fruit to drop to the ground but it's easier to keep an eye on the fruits if you pick them in late October or November, while still hard. Store them in a single layer on dry sand or paper, stalk upwards, somewhere cool and airy (it doesn't have to be dark). It's a good idea to dip the stalks in a strong salt solution to prevent moulds and rotting.
Any time from a week to three weeks later, the fruit will have bletted. The skin will have browned and possibly become slightly wrinkled, and the fruit will be soft to the touch. Eat as soon as it's ready, as this seems to be when it's at its most tangy and citrus.
How to Eat Medlar Fruit
What you definitely don't get is a lot to eat from each medlar (they contain several, fairly chunky stones – "pips" just doesn't paint the right picture) and my favourite way is to eat them is to scoop the flesh straight from the fruit with a teaspoon. It makes a delicacy with wine, port or cheese. You can also mix the pulp with sugar and cream but I think this actually reduces its flavour. Adding it to breakfast yoghurt is something of a treat.
Medlars are probably best known, however, for being made into a jelly or cheese, when the fruits are stewed whole and passed through a sieve. You'll need a fair number to make more than a small jarful, but the fun will be in getting your friends to guess what it is.
By Helen Gazeley