Japanese medlar

Mespilus germanica

The Common Medlar (Mespilus germanica) is a large shrub or small tree, and the name of the fruit of this tree. Despite its Latin name, which means German or Germanic Medlar, it is indigenous to southwest Asia and possibly also southeastern Europe, and was introduced to Germany by the Romans.

Until recently, the Common Medlar was the only known species of medlar (see this article for more general cultural information). However, in 1990 a new species was discovered in North America, now named Stern's Medlar (Mespilus canescens). The Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) is also related, and sometimes called the "Japanese Medlar".

The Common Medlar requires warm summers and mild winters and prefers sunny, dry locations and slightly acidic soil. Under ideal circumstances, the deciduous plant grows up to 8 m tall. Generally, it is shorter and more shrub-like than tree-like. With a lifespan of 30–50 years, the Common Medlar is rather short-lived. Common Medlar leaves are dark green and elliptic, 8–15 cm long and 3–4 cm wide. The leaves turn a spectacular red in autumn before falling.

The five-petalled white flowers are produced in late spring. The reddish-brown medlar fruit is a pome, 2–3 cm diameter, with wide-spreading persistent sepals giving a 'hollow' appearance to the fruit.

Common Medlar fruit are very hard and acidic. They become edible after being softened ('bletted') by frost, or naturally in storage given sufficient time. Once softening begins the skin rapidly takes a wrinkled texture and turns dark brown, and the inside reduces to the consistency and flavour reminiscent of apple sauce. This process can be a cause of confusion to new medlar consumers, as a softened medlar can give the appearance that it has spoiled.

Cultivation and uses

The Common Medlar was already being cultivated about three thousand years ago in the Caspian Sea region (northern Iran). It was introduced to Greece around 700 BC and to Rome about 200 BC. It was an important fruit plant during Roman and medieval times. By the 17th and 18th century, however, it had been superseded by other fruits, and is very rarely cultivated today. Common Medlar is one of the few fruit that becomes edible in winter, and an important tree for gardeners who wish to try to have fruit available all year round. There are several cultivars, including 'Royal', 'Nottingham', and 'Dutch', which bears the largest fruit. Medlars can be grafted on to the rootstock of another species, for example the pear, to improve their performance in different soils.

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