What Is a Medlar Fruit (Musmula) and Where Can You Find Them?
We have a medlar tree, but it took me a while to find out exactly what it was. When we moved to Limousin in Southwestern France to start our Bed and Breakfast, Les Trois Chenes, (or The Three Oaks), we were lucky enough to inherit a mature medlar tree. At the time, I didn’t know it was a medlar; we were told by the previous owners that it was a néflier and the fruits were les nèfles. We were advised by the former owners to wait until November to harvest the fruit, when they would be soft. Eventually I put two and two together and came up with the medlar.
Medlars have gone out of fashion in Britain, which is why I hadn’t heard of them before. However, I’m pleased that they are enjoying a well deserved revival. They are small, pretty trees with beautiful flowers.
Questions This Article Will Answer
- What family does the medlar belong to?
- Where does the medlar fruit come from?
- How big do the trees get to be?
- How are medlar fruits produced?
- Can you eat the fruit?
- Should you plant a medlar?
Facts About the Medlar Tree and Its Fruit
Medlars are tough, hardy, and healthy trees that produce a heavy crop of small, golden fruits that are harvested when most other fruits have finished. What could be more deserving of a place in your garden and kitchen? Here's everything you need to know about this beautiful tree and its delicious fruit.
1. What Family Does the Medlar Belong to?
The medlar (Mespilus) belongs to the Rosaceae family. The common medlar (Mespilus germanica) is from southwest Asia and the northern coast of Turkey. My husband comes from this area and remembers having medlar trees in his garden as a child; they were called Musmula (the ‘s’ should have a cedilla). Stern's Medlar (Mespilus canescens) was discovered in North America in 1990.
2. Where Does the Medlar Fruit Come From?
The fruit is native to Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and Northern Iran. At one point, it was thought that medlar fruit had originated in Germany. Thus the "germanica" in its scientific name. The medlar was grown in Greece starting around 700 B.C. and came to Rome about 200 B.C. The Romans cultivated them. Medlars are shown in the mosaics at Pompeii. Medlars were also very popular in the Middle Ages and were the mainstay of medieval French and English gardens.
We tend to think of it as a Victorian fruit, as it was very popular in Britain at the time, but it has since been largely forgotten there. Going back in British history, the common medlar has been used as a metaphor for old age and, especially, premature age. Perhaps it's the soft, brown, and slightly wrinkled skin of the mature fruit that conjures those comparisons. The caylix end of the fruit has led it to receive the rather bawdy name of open-arses and it features in British plays from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
It seems to have retained its popularity in France, or at least in Limousin where many of the gardens have medlar trees.
3. How Big Do the Trees Get to Be?
The trees grow up to about 25 feet and have a spread of about 20 feet (about eight meters). Ours is a little smaller than this. They have a rather weeping habit and gnarled, decorative branches. This weeping habit is, in my mind, to be encouraged as it makes picking the bottom third a cinch. They have dark green, long oval leaves that turn yellow or red in autumn. The white or pink flowers, which are 3—4cm across, are born in May or June.
Trees are occasionally sold on their own roots, but more often are grafted onto hawthorn (semi-dwarfing), ‘Quince A’ (semi-dwarfing) or ‘Quince C’ (dwarfing) rootstocks. This means that you will get a slightly smaller tree, or you can choose naturally compact cultivars like ‘Nottingham’.
Medlars are self-fertile, so only one cultivar needs to be grown to obtain fruit.
4. How Are Medlar Fruits Produced?
The medlar fruit is a pome (after the Latin word for fruit: pōmum), the type of fruit produced by flowering plants in the subfamily Maloideae of the family Rosaceae. The best-known example of a pome is the apple, but other pomes are cotoneaster, hawthorn, loquat, medlar, pear, pyracantha, toyon, quince, rowan, and whitebeam.
Medlar fruits are unusual both in appearance and in their ripening habits. They are small and round, yellowish when mature, and then they turn a reddish brown in November. They are very decorative with their five large, star-shaped calyx at the end. They hang from the tree like Christmas baubles after the leaves have dropped.
5. Can You Eat the Fruit?
Until they start to decay, they are hard and inedible (they will rarely reach this stage by themselves on the tree and need to be harvested as late as possible in November). They should be left in a box in a cool dry place until they become soft and juicy. This ripening process is known as "bletting" the medlars.
You can eat them raw—they taste a bit like stewed apple. The dark brown flesh has that texture. They can also be used to make jam (or cheese) and jellies.
Shakespeare and Medlars
Shakespeare references medlars in four different plays: Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliette.
"Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O Romeo! that she were, O! that she were
An open et cœtera, thou a poperin pear."
Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene I, line 38 and 40
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Can you buy and grow medlars in the US and northwest Washington in particular?
I'm sorry, I live in France so no idea about availability in the US. Do you mean the trees? They grow in S W France and in the UK so they are frost hardy and don't need a very hot summer. I'm not sure if they would thrive in very cold climates. Typically our winters go to about -5°. I'm sure you'll be able to get advice from local tree nurseries. I do hope you can grow and enjoy your medlar trees.