Nowadays, medlar trees are rather rare in our gardens. Nevertheless, this medieval tree is quietly making a comeback with its interesting fruits and pretty autumn foliage.
Medlar trees (Mespilus germanica), also known as common medlars, were once widespread across Europe in the Middle Ages. However, it has lost favour in recent years and is rarely seen in gardens. This wild fruit tree is more common in orchards, and along fields and roadsides. Read on to find out the best medlar varieties as well as tips and tricks for planting and caring for medlars successfully.
Medlar: flower, origin and properties
Medlar is a member of the pome fruit family (Pyrinae), a subfamily of the rose family (Rosaceae). Contrary to its Latin name, it does not originate from Europe, but from Western Asia and the Caucasus. The Romans brought it to Central and Southern Europe. Whilst the medlar fruit tree was very popular in the Middle Ages, it is now almost unknown. Nevertheless, common medlar is especially attractive and produces very aromatic, apple-like fruits that can be used to make delicious jams, jellies and chutneys.
Common medlar is a hardy, low maintenance fruit tree that can be grown as a large shrub or small tree. It can grow to a height of three to six metres. Its light grey trunk grows into a slightly twisted irregular shape. The twigs are grey and covered in woolly hair. Over the years, the numerous branches eventually form a spreading, strongly branching, almost round crown, giving the medlar tree the appearance of being wider than tall. It has a strongly branching and flat root system. The finely serrated and felt-like hairy leaves are oval and somewhat pointed with dark green upper sides and paler undersides. In autumn, the decorative leaves turn an autumnal orange.
After the leaves emerge in spring, white and pink flowers bloom at the tips of the short twigs between May and June. The medlar flower looks similar to apple blossoms, but its petals are larger with a diameter of three to five centimetres. The medlar is self-pollinating and over the summer, round, hard, four centimetre fruits form from the flowers. The withered sepals cluster together like a crown at the end of the fruit. The fruit skin is rough and golden brown. The fruits have five seeds, and when exposed to frost, the light-coloured flesh darkens and becomes sweeter. In this overripe state, the fruits are ready to be harvested.
The question still remains: Are medlars poisonous? The fruits of Mespilus germanica are edible and non-toxic. However, when unripe, the fruits are hard and bitter. As a result, they should only be eaten when fully ripe. The seeds of the medlar fruit, like some other rosaceous plants, contain prussic acid, which should not be eaten in large quantities.
The most popular medlar varieties
In addition to the wild form of Mespilus germanica, there are a number of cultivated varieties that differ in growth and fruit size.
- The ‘Large Dutch’ medlar is one of the largest varieties. This is a very old, high-yielding and large-fruited variety with heavy, circular fruits. It is very vigorous and can be recognised by its laurel-like leaves.
- The ‘Macrocarpa’ medlar also has particularly large fruits and reaches a height of 1.5-4 m.
- The high-yielding variety ‘Iranian’ medlar produces early ripening fruits that are good for eating fresh.
- The ‘Royal’ medlar variety has somewhat smaller fruits. The fruits are elongated-round and with a sweet creamy flesh. It grows to a medium height and is shrubby.
- Medlar ‘Nottingham’ is the best known variety in the UK. It has good-tasting smaller fruits and is a small, deciduous tree that grows more upright than other varieties.
Planting medlar trees
The medlar tree thrives in both sunny and semi-shady spots as long as the plant is sheltered from the wind. Common medlar prefers well-drained and slightly acidic soil with a low lime content. Plant bare-root trees in late autumn or winter so that they can develop strong roots and grow well the following spring. Medlars can be planted in pots at any time of the year. If you want to plant several medlars at once to create a hedge, plant them one metre apart. The advantage of a hedge is that the trees support each other and are therefore less susceptible to wind damage. Stake single young medlar trees to give it the support it needs. Medlar trees are only somewhat suitable for growing pots; The plant needs a lot of space for its root system to develop and thus needs to be planted in a large enough pot. Use a peat-free, nutrient-rich potting soil, such as our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost, for medlars growing in pots.
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Medlar care: what to look out for
The medlar is a low-maintenance ornamental fruit tree that is extremely hardy. It will thrive and live for many decades if grown in the right location with the right soil conditions.
Fertilising and watering medlar
After planting, water the medlar tree regularly. Do not let the soil of newly planted trees dry out completely. Apply a small amount of fertiliser about two or three months after planting to enable the young plants to grow healthily and vigorously. Our slow-release Plantura All Purpose Plant Food is ideal or alternatively, use bone meal. Older trees that have established roots usually do not need any fertiliser and also no longer need to be watered regularly. However, during longer periods of drought, water the medlar occasionally.
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Pruning medlar plants
After the initial pruning of the medlar tree, a trunk and uniform crown will form so regular pruning is not necessary. Only prune back heavily hanging and protruding branches a little in the winter. The medlars on the market are typically grafted onto a vigorous rootstock (e.g. quince or hawthorn). Sometimes the rootstock sprouts, in which case These shoots should be removed.
Young medlar trees bear fruit very quickly. To avoid the energy-intensive sprouting from damaging the development of the younger plant, cut off the small fruits in summer during its first years of growth.
Is the medlar hardy?
The medlar thrives in the UK and northern Europe as it is both hardy to -20°C and frost-resistant. However, young medlar trees are still sensitive to frost; paint them with special white lime paint at the beginning of winter in the first few years. The white paint reflects the sun’s rays and keeps the tree bark from cracking. Without a coat of paint, the morning sun that follows a frosty night usually causes the bark on the side exposed to the sun to warm up too quickly, while the side away from the sun remains frozen, often resulting in trunk damage.
Medlars can be propagated in several ways. Firstly, its seeds can be sown. Remove the seeds from the fruit making sure to remove any pulp. Sow the medlar seeds directly outdoors or grow them indoors in seed pots at temperatures between 15 and 20°C. The medlar seeds need a cold stimulus to germinate (stratification). To do this, place the seeds in the fridge at around 5°C for a few days to stratify them. Then fill the seed pots with compost, such as our peat-free Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, and place the seeds at a depth of about two centimetres. Always keep the soil moist. With this method, it takes the trees a long time to develop enough before they can bear their first fruits.
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A faster and more reliable method than seed propagation is vegetative propagation via cuttings. To do this, cut approximately 10 to 15 cm long, one-year-old shoots that are barely woody from the medlar tree. Remove the lower leaves leaving the upper pair of leaves. Cut the shoot at an angle so that the area where new roots are to form is as large as possible and place them in pots with seedling compost. Keep the soil moist and place the pot in a bright spot but protected from direct sunlight. Once the cuttings have formed roots, plant them in larger pots or outdoors in spring. Since the cultivated forms available in nurseries are usually grafted onto vigorous rootstocks, plants propagated by seed or cuttings may produce smaller fruits.
Tip: Propagating medlar vegetatively via cuttings is more reliable and faster than propagating by seeds.
Medlar: harvest and use
In addition to vitamin C and other nutrients, medlar fruits contain many tannins, which cause their bitter taste when unripe. The first frost in late autumn makes medlars soft and sweet and ready for harvest. Alternatively, harvest the unripe fruits and put them in the freezer for a day to trigger the ripening process.
Overripe, soft medlars can be used to make delicious jellies, jams and juices. They can also be made into aromatic fruit leathers. Furthermore, cakes, dumplings and other desserts taste great with some medlar compote. If you would like to treat birds to a sweet snack, remember to leave some medlar fruits behind when harvesting. Medlars not only provide food for birds, but their flowers are also a valuable source of food for bees and other insects.
Tip: When medlars are ripe enough to eat, sloes and rose hips can be harvested as well. All these fruits have one thing in common: after being exposed to frost, they go straight from fruit ripeness to fermentation due to the destruction of the cell walls. This greatly increases their sweetness, but also makes the fruits very susceptible to spoilage.
Read our article on the top 10 plants for songbirds to learn more about bird-friendly gardening including which plants are fantastic food sources for birds.