6. Medlar (Mespilus germanica)
If you think that the medlar sounds like something oddly medieval, you’ve guessed correctly. Coveted in Roman and Medieval times, the medlar is a unique shrub that’s rarely planted today. With its pretty flowers and tasty fruit, which has an unfairly bad reputation, it’s a boost for biodiversity – all the more reasons for reviving it. If you’re looking for a characteristic and eccentric shrub for your urban garden, then the medlar may be for you.
It was brought to the Netherlands by the Romans. Coveted as a winter delicacy, the medlar was likely forgotten over time as other fruits became more available during winter. The name Mespilus germanica refers to Germany, the confusion coming from Linneaus who thought that the shrub originated from there.
The medlar is a slow shrub in all senses of the word – patience is needed for its growth and to ripen the fruit. Its crooked branches are unmistakable; the French expression “As straight as an old medlar” referring to an untrustworthy person says it all.
When the shrub is in full bloom, the fragrance of the lovely large white flowers fills the air. Enjoy this treat for a couple of weeks in May, as will the bees, bumblebees, hoverflies and apple-and-plum casebearer moths. A few months later, around October, the round rust-coloured medlars look like they’re ripe for the picking. But wait. Medlars are inedible until they’ve been softened, or bletted to be precise. They can be left on the tree to soften, frozen, or picked unripe and bletted indoors, much like avocados or persimmons. And if you think you’ve accidentally left them to rot, don’t panic. When the skin and flesh have turned brown and mushy and there’s a heady smell of ripe apples, they’re ready to eat! Soft and sweet, medlars are little vitamin C bombs. A word of warning though: avoid the five rock hard seeds or risk breaking a tooth.
Traditionally medlars make excellent jam, jelly and liquer. Every part of the medlar is said to have medicinal benefits. Dried leaves are used to heal wounds and eating the fruit is said to improve one’s memory and alleviate menstrual pain. Though don’t overeat them because they have a laxative effect!
Bring the medlar back! With its striking contorted form, obscure but loveable fruit and flowers that are a feast for the eye and the insects, the medlar deserves a spot in any city. And lastly, don’t forget to bring your medlar walking stick on your next hike.