Medlars are ornamental, flowering trees with pretty white blossom, good autumn colours and fruits which are edible, and deliciously unusual! The luxurious fruit is ready in the wintertime, providing a rich and fresh snack when little other fruit, except perhaps Persimmon, is available. An easily maintained tree with a lot going for it, welcome to our Essential Guide to probably everything you need to know about Growing Medlar – Mespilus germanica.
During this post we’ll take a close look at these incredible plants including how to grow them, the uses of Medlar and growing them in polycultures and in permaculture gardens.
The common Medlar – Mespilus germanica, is widely considered the only specie in the genus Mespilus, however if you’re looking online, you might stumble upon a second proposed species in the same genus, Mespilus canescens although this plant is also known as ×Crataemespilus canescens, or Stern’s Medlar. So there’s a story behind how this particular plant has an alias.
Medlar – Mespilus germanica
Latin name – Mespilus germanica
Common name – Medlar
Family – Rosaceae
|Medlar flower opening|
Light Preferences – Medlars thrive in full sun but can grow well in partial shade. For optimum fruit production plant in a sunny position.
Water needs – Young trees planted out in the spring or autumn need regular watering while establishing. The soil should be free draining as the plants will not grow well in waterlogged soils. It appears to have some drought tolerance, but not typically a tree we would choose for a dry area. Having said that, the established and more mature trees in our garden cope very well with hot and dry summers, needing no extra irrigation.
Habitat – Woodland edge and hedgerows, in a sunny, fairly sheltered location.Hardiness – USDA -5 – 8 Tolerates a wide range of climates, and also may fruit in some cooler climes due to the fact that the bloom time is comparatively late (May – June) so the blossom is rarely damaged by frost. Although some sources describe the Medlar as being unable to tolerate strong winds, in our experience they fare quite well, although strong winds around the bloom time may cause damage to the flowers.
|Medlar – Mespilus germanica – Spring Flowers – Autumn Leaf fall and Winter Fruits|
Where to Plant
Climatic Limitations – The Medlar has successfully spread to regions as diverse as south-east Asia to north-west Europe. That plant will not produce fruit in tropical climates as it requires winter chill (similar to apples) to flower. They grow well, crop well and produce good quality fruit in nearly all parts of Europe. They should always be planted in full sun for optimal fruit production but will produce good quantities of fruit in partial shade (4-6 hrs of direct sunlight a day).
Soil – Ideally Medlars like a well drained slightly acid (pH 6.5) loam soil but are easily pleased and will tolerate a wide range of soils except for very alkali or chalky soils. Free drainage is essential, as they dislike waterlogging.
Feeding, Irrigation and Care
Feeding – Medlars generally have very low fertilizer requirements, When planting out new trees top dressing the planting hole with 20 – 30 L of compost and repeating this in early spring for the first 2 years will be more than enough to get them going. After this they should be fine, especially so if you are growing the tree in polycultures.
Irrigation -. Young trees should be mulched well each spring and irrigated for the first 2-3 years with 30 L of water every 2-4 weeks without rain. Once established, Medlars do not usually require irrigation unless you are experiencing an extremely dry period for a prolonged period of time.
Weeding – Mulching plants with a 10 -20 cm deep mulch each spring and pulling weeds that start to grow through in the summer is good practice when the plants are young. As the trees mature they grow well amongst other plants of all kinds.
Pruning – Once established Medlars don’t need regular pruning. To encourage a good strong tree like-form early on, cut away all suckers and lower branches so that the tree has a clear trunk. Medlars then only really need pruning to remove dead, damaged, diseased or crossing branches. Pruning should be performed towards the end of dormancy, in February/early March.
Harvesting – Medlars are ready to harvest once all the leaves have dropped off in the autumn, and one or more hard frosts have occurred, kick-starting the bletting process. Fruits should never be pulled roughly – when they are ready to be picked the fruit stem should break away with ease. That said, you can harvest them before a frost and leave them inside to ripen, although this can take a while which may be viewed as positive feature, as the fruit can be at the point of eating in the heart of winter when fresh fruit from the garden is a treat indeed.
Propagation – Cuttings of mature wood are traditionally grafted on Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) rootstock. However, Hawthorn tends to sucker heavily leading to a rise in popularity of using Quince rootstocks. It’s possible to use seedling Mespilus germanica rootstock which has better compatibility and produces semi-dwarfing trees although Medlar are tricky to grow from seed, as they have very hard and impermeable seed coats and apparently won’t typically germinate until they have gone through two winters.
Fruit – As a rule of thumb, Medlars should remain on the tree until the leaves start to fall in the autumn and until after the first frost or two of the season. We usually start harvesting the fruits in November, although there are variations in this from year to year, and depending on when we encounter our first frost. Sometimes this is as late as mid December, which is actually great timing as it’s pleasant to have access to fresh fruit at that time of the year. If you are picking them and they feel hard then they need to be stored and made edible through bletting. We usually place the fruits on a windowsill, or in a wooden fruit bowl and find that they soften within a couple of weeks. If you’re picking the fruit soft then it should be fine to eat immediately.
Erosion control: Medlar typically has medium depth roots and so has some potential for erosion control.
Soil Improver and Biomass: Medlars are often grafted of Quince rootstocks that will sucker freely in some cases and can make a good source of biomass if pruned annual and applied to the base of the tree as mulch.
Animal Fodder – Pigs and sheep reportedly graze and enjoy the leaves, while the fruits provide decent forage for wildlife in the early winter. Pigs enjoy the fruits as do rabbits.
Leaves – The leaves are dark green, spear shaped and can grow to be fairly large – as much as 15 cm long and 4 cm wide. The autumn colours are one of the best in the garden, with leaves turning a spectacular and deep red in the autumn.
Landscaping – Being low maintenance and drought tolerant make Medlar very easy plants to incorporate into different polycultures. They can be considered for the upper canopy, lower canopy or shrub layer
|Image taken from Gardenitsa showing Medlars that are grown mainly for ornamental value in Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, UK|
Bee Fodder – Bees are very fond of Medlar flowers. The nectar arises from a yellowish circle at the base of the blossoms and attracts a large variety of bee species including honeybees and bumblebees.
Medicinal uses – Some reported medicinal benefits are that the fruit is a natural laxative, yet we also found that it has a reputation for helping with diarrhea. This conflict of action may be dependent on which stage of ripeness the fruit in consumed at. The fruit also may help heal or eliminate oral abscesses. Seeds contain the toxic hydrocyanic acid and so caution should be taken.
|Taken from Ghassem Habibi Bibalani and Fatemeh Mosazadeh-Sayadmahaleh’s detailed paper|
Victoria Bezhitashvili, a member of our 2018 Polyculture Study team, wrote a thesis on the traditional knowledge and use of Medlar in rural Bulgaria. Victoria has kindly shared her work and you can find it here.
|A young Medlar of 4 years producing well in our market/forest garden, Aponia|
|Representation of a mature Medlaronia polyculture|
|Medlar Polyculture 2D plan|
|Alliaria petiolata – Garlic Mustard growing on the northern edge of the polyculture|
http://www.academicjournals.org/app/webroot/article/article1380734557_Bibalani%20and%20Mosazadeh-Sayadmahaleh%20%206.pdf – Medicinal
https://realenglishfruit.co.uk/how-to-prune-medlar-trees/ – pruning
https://ediblelandscaping.com/careguide/Medlar/ – care guide
https://www.rootsimple.com/2010/12/medlar-the-best-fruit-youve-never-heard-of/ – overview