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What is a Medlar Fruit (Musmula)?

Updated on June 11, 2013
Medlars ripening on the tree
Medlars ripening on the tree

The Common Medlar - Mespilus germanica

We have a medlar tree but it took me a while to find out exactly what it was. When we moved to Limousin in S W France to start our Bed and Breakfast, Les Trois Chenes, (or The Three Oaks), we were lucky enough to inherit a mature meldar 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 our of fashion in Britain at least, 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.

They are tough,hardy, healthy and 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?

Medlar cheese and medlar fruit
Medlar cheese and medlar fruit

The Medlar or (Mespilus)

The Medlar (Mespilus) belongs to the Rosaceae family and there are two species:

  1. The Common Medlar (Mespilus germanica) from s w 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).
  2. Stern's Medlar (Mespilus canescens) discovered in North America in 1990

Medlar blossoms and leaves
Medlar blossoms and leaves

The history of the medlar

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 by 700 BC and came to Rome about 200 BC. The Romans cultivated them and 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 then, but has since been largely forgotten there. Going back in British history a bit the fruit of 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. 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. In some of them I’ve seen fruits twice the size of mine, but I’m not sure if it is cultivation, position or variety.

The medlar makes a pretty, small tree for the garden. This is a young specimen.
The medlar makes a pretty, small tree for the garden. This is a young specimen.

The Tree

The trees grow up to about 25 feet and have a spread of about 20 feet (about 8 meters) although 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, and the white or pink flowers, 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 a naturally compact cultivars like ‘Nottingham’.

Medlars are self-fertile so only one cultivar needs to be grown to obtain fruit.

The medlar fruit is ready when soft and brown
The medlar fruit is ready when soft and brown
These fruits are larger than the ones on my tree
These fruits are larger than the ones on my tree

The Fruit

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.

Hard and inedible until they start to decay although 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 and the dark brown flesh has that texture. They can also be used to make jam (or cheese) and jellies. Try this Medlar Cheese Recipe

Why not plant a Medlar?

The trees are easy to grow, pretty and profitable, in that they produce delicious and unusual fruit so why not plant one in your garden and reap the rewards? Tempted?

Have a look at this article: How to grow Medlars

Shakespeare and medlars

Shakespeare makes four references to medlars, in 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

Painting in Rochecouart
Painting in Rochecouart

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    • Les Trois Chenes profile image

      Les Trois Chenes 7 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

      CMHypno I hadn't heard of them until I inherited ours in France. For a long time I knew them as 'Nefliers' but then put 2 and 2 together and came up with Medlar.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 7 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Its a long time since I have heard of medlars, Les Trois Chenes, so hopefully your hub will encourage more of us Btits to plants some medlar trees

    • Les Trois Chenes profile image

      Les Trois Chenes 7 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

      akirchner Many thanks for your kind comments. They really are nice trees to have in the garden.

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 7 years ago from Washington

      How interesting! Very beautifully done.

    • Les Trois Chenes profile image

      Les Trois Chenes 7 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

      It is such a shame to waste them when the jam is so gorgeous. Check that it is really a Medlar and then get spooning out that flesh and boiling it into jam. I'm going to tackle jelly next. Many thanks for the comments.

    • James Mark profile image

      James Mark 7 years ago from York, England

      Well, you might have solved our garden puzzle. We have a bush which develops this kind of fruit just by our front window and can't remember seeing one before. Time for a bit of research to confirm this identification. Up till now we have let the fruit drop and rot, as we were not sure what it was.