Deciduous shrub or small tree, 3–6(–8) m. Bark greyish, on the trunk flaking when older to reveal orange-brown new bark. Branchlets unarmed or armed with straight, blackish, determinate, 1–2 cm thorns; woody short shoots (spurs) present only in some forms; current year’s growth canescent. Winter buds 3–6 mm, conical, with 8–12 imbricate, dark grey-brown or dull brownish-red scales. Leaves simple; blade 3–12 cm long, narrow-obovate or elliptic to more or less oval, pubescent, venation camptodromous; margins entire or with minute teeth, particularly towards apex. Inflorescences 1(–2)-flowered, with 2–5 leaves below the flower(s), either on spurs or borne terminally or laterally on long shoots; bracteoles few, 5–15 mm long, very narrow, acuminate, membranous to leathery, caducous to persistent, hairy beneath. Flowers 25–35 mm across; hypanthium densely canescent; disc canescent centrally, saucer-shaped with opening for styles; sepals narrow, acuminate, 10–30% longer than petals, margins sometimes with a few, very narrow teeth; petals white, more or less circular, very short clawed, somewhat cupped, often notched apically; stamens ~25–35, anthers red (rarely cream); styles 5, adnate to ventral side of carpel for most of length and projecting through central opening in disc; carpels 5, connate, adnate to hypanthium and disc, with 2 ovules per carpel. Fruit spherical to flattened or top-shaped pome, 12–15 mm (wild types), 25–70 mm or more (cultivated forms), brown, glabrous or pubescent, punctate; hypanthial opening very wide, 60–90% width of fruit; flesh of hypanthium initially firm, whitish and acidic, later becoming brown, mushy, fragrant and sweeter-tasting; sepals persistent, green, much larger than in flower, narrow, erect to connivent. 2n=34. (Phipps 2016).
Distribution Armenia Azerbaijan Bulgaria perhaps native Georgia Iran Iraq Russia Caucasus Turkey perhaps native Ukraine Crimea
USDA Hardiness Zone 5-8
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
The Medlar has been grown for its fruit in Europe and southwest Asia since time immemorial. It sits on the dubious boundary between large shrub and small tree, sometimes becoming gnarled and picturesque with age. Today it is grown as much as an ornamental, with its large, solitary, rather pear-like flowers in late spring, as it is for the ambiguous pleasures of eating the fruit, which are usually enjoyed in a state of managed decomposition. A far more important cultivated tree in the past, its many historical, cultural and (sometimes lewd) literary associations add immeasurably to its status in the garden.
Any discussion of Mespilus germanica must surely begin with its distinctive fruit, a pome with the same general structure as the closely related hawthorns (Crataegus). The bulk of the fruit is rather homogeneous flesh, derived from the hypanthium at the base of the flower. The walls of each carpel become very hard, enclosing one flake-like seed per carpel. These are the stony, separate ‘pips’ within the flesh, which unlike Crataegus is rich in sclereids, giving a gritty texture as in pears (Pyrus) (Robertson et al. 1991). While looking rather like a small, brown apple, the medlar is easily recognized by the broad, shallow opening at the ‘flower end’ of the fruit (the hypanthial opening), surrounded by the five persistent, greenish sepals which may either stand erect or fold across the opening to meet near their tips in star-fashion (Phipps 2016). While natural seed dispersal has not been studied in Mespilus, the relatively large, brownish, aromatic fruit which falls to the ground when ripe fits a pattern for fruit eaten by carnivorous mammals such as badgers, foxes and martens (Herrera 1989); its relatives Cormus and Torminalis are better-documented examples.
Fruits are usually solitary, as are the conspicuous flowers from which they develop. Leaves are normally fully developed at flowering time, so a medlar bush in blossom has a distinctly green-and-white look, quite unlike the white or pink of most Malus flowering before leaf expansion. Most Mespilus clones seem to be self-fertile, with isolated trees setting fruit well. Self-pollination without the need for a pollinator (autogamy) seems to be possible, and some clones may be parthenocarpic, producing fruit without fertilization (Baird & Thieret 1989). However, almost all garden medlars are to some extent domesticated, and this may be a trait which has been selected in cultivation. Some cultivars do seem to need pollination by another clone for good fruit set (eg. ‘Monstrueuse d’Evreinoff’ – Drouet 2003; Carya 2023). Flower structure suggests a generalist pollination strategy; one might expect diverse short-tongued bees to be effective, for example, but studies in wild-type plants seem lacking.
The Medlar has probably been cultivated for its fruit southwest Asia and the Mediterranean region for at least 3,000 years (Baird & Thieret 1989; Zołnierczyk et al. 2021). Perhaps never a staple, it is a delicacy, a fruit de fantaisie (du Hamel fide Loudon 1844). It is rarely eaten raw from the tree before decomposition has begun, although a few cultivars are taken ‘slightly seriously’ in this way (Dunn 2010). If uncooked, medlars are normally ‘bletted’, allowed to begin the rotting process so the flesh becomes soft, with a complex flavour sometimes described as vinous or spicy, and certainly not to everyone’s tastes today. It is feasible to let the fruit blet on the tree, or when fallen, and gather them at what is judged to be the ideal stage. On a more serious scale (and certainly for market) they are usually gathered and stored in trays for a few weeks until ready, typically November to December in Britain (Baird & Thieret 1989). Today used almost only for medlars, though occasionally applied to the even less frequently consumed (but much tastier) fruits of Cormus domestica, the verb ‘blet’ is used in English for this process of over-ripening. John Lindley (1839) claimed to have coined it himself, feeling that there was no suitable English term (although ‘sleepy’ as applied to pears seems close), but the French verb blettir, with the adjective blette, is in current use to describe fruit softening, as in les nèfles [medlars] se mangent blettes (M-C. de Laubarède pers. comm. 2023). The fruit is also used in various cakes and tarts, steeped in brandy to flavour a liqueur, and especially in preserves, jelly in particular. Its popularity in Western Europe has declined over the last few centuries, and it is barely a commercial crop in most countries. One British firm, Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree, Essex continues to make medlar jelly commercially, from its own orchard (Wilkin & Sons Ltd 2023); in the 1980s they had about 100 trees, making 5,000 jars of jelly annually (Baird & Thieret 1989). In Turkey, medlars are still widely marketed and eaten. Most production is from scattered trees in or around hazelnut orchards in the Black Sea region, with most fruit harvested hard in October, but a proportion left to blet on the tree (Aygün & Taşçı 2013).
Most parts of the plant, including leaves, fruit, bark and wood have been used in Iran and Turkey as traditional remedies for diverse ailments, many of them connected in some way to the digestive tract, while the heavy, hard wood has been used in making tool handles and fishing rods. High levels of tannins in the leaves, bark and unripe fruits led to their use in tanning leather and clarifying wine (Bibalani & Sayadmahaleh 2012; Zołnierczyk et al. 2021). Polyphenols give the fruit high antioxidant activity, and it is under investigation as a ‘functional food’ (Zołnierczyk et al. 2021).
A long history of cultivation in Europe and western Asia obscured the natural range of the species. Linnaeus’ specific epithet of 1753 suggests that he considered it native to Central Europe; even in the mid-20th century Flora Europaea (Tutin et al. 1968) considered it native as far west as Sicily and Sardinia. Contemporary understanding is that the medlar is native to northern Iran and Iraq, the Caucasus region, Crimea; less certainly native to Turkey and the south east Balkans; and introduced elsewhere (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2023; Phipps 2016). It can be grown very widely across Europe, although probably grows best with warm summers. Specimens of 4–5 m × ~1 m are frequent in British gardens (The Tree Register 2023). The familiar medlars of gardens are apparently domesticated, with larger fruits, longer petals and fewer spines than their wild ancestors (Baird & Thieret 1989), although Aygün & Taşçı (2013) found considerable variation in fruit size among plants growing in apparently natural habitat in Ordu Province, northern Turkey. Unimproved material is very occasionally seen in specialist collections, for example at RBG Kew (J. Grimshaw, pers. comm. 2023, see image below); at RBG Edinburgh (Turkish and Iranian provenances – Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2023); and at the Morton Arboretum, IL (Crimean provenance – Morton Arboretum 2023; Baird & Thieret 1989). A 1972 introduction from northern Iran (A&L 14) was for a while grown at The Sir Harold Hiller Gardens, Hampshire, where it made a thorny bush with smaller leaves and fruit than familiar forms (Edwards & Marshall 2019); plants from this collection may persist somewhere.
While rarely a stand-out ornamental, Mespilus germanica still earns its place in the garden through the year. Loudon (1844) nicely summarized its virtues: ‘the tortuous fantastic appearance of its branches, its large white flowers, its large leaves, and the rich-looking persistent calyxes [sic] which accompany its fruit’. Its autumn leaf colour can be good and long-lasting, often a warm reddish-brown. It is easily suited, very cold-hardy and coping with diverse soils (waterlogging may be a step too far) in sunny or lightly shaded positions; pests and diseases are rarely significant, although in Britain Winter Moth caterpillars may be an issue (Bean 1981; Dirr & Warren 2019; Royal Horticultural Society 2023). Formative pruning in winter is advisable in young specimens, but thereafter pruning is only required for aesthetics, particularly the removal of crossing branches (Huxley, Griffiths & Levy 1992). Cultivars are normally propagated by budding and grafting; cuttings are reputedly difficult to root. Hawthorn (Crataegus spp., usually C. monogyna in Europe) or – especially for dwarfing and tolerance of wetter soils – Quince (Cydonia oblonga); seed-raised Mespilus or Pyrus have historically also been used (Baird & Thieret 1989).
Use of Crataegus as a rootstock has led to a garden oddity, the graft hybrid +Crataegomespilus (q.v.), a stable chimaera combining layers of tissue from two species. Like so many of its relatives, cultivated or naturalized Mespilus germanica has been a parent of intergeneric sexual hybrids. The best documented are ×Crataemespilus (with Crataegus spp.) and ×Mesaronibus (three-way hybrids with Aronia and Sorbus) – we describe both in dedicated articles. A poorly documented, currently un-named hybrid between Mespilus germanica ‘Nottingham’ and Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’ also exists. Made in the 1990s by experimentally minded plant breeder Peter Dummer at Hillier Nurseries, UK, it seems never to have been distributed, but a specimen grows at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire (B. Clarke, pers. comm. 2023). It makes a rather unattractive, tangled, prickly shrub tending towards the Pyracantha parent in leaf.
The fruit’s popularity in the medieval and early modern periods led to literary references far beyond serious discussions of the plant itself, and such links to the past – real, imagined or more ambiguous – add immensely to the pleasure of growing this species. Geoffrey Chaucer demonstrates that the taste for bletted medlars was established by the 14th century, when he has the Canterbury Tales’ elderly Reeve (in the Reeve’s Prologue) liken himself to an ‘open-ers’ (medlar), going on to boast ‘We olde men, I drede, so fare we:/ Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype’ (Benson 1987). The name ‘open-ers’ or ‘open-erse’ is suggested by the fruit’s hypanthial opening. ‘Erse’ is related to the modern English ‘arse’ (note similar names for the medlar in French (cul de chien) and German (apenärseken) – Baird & Thieret 1989) although use in female sexual imagery suggests that it had a rather wider application to the body’s nether regions. Around the turn of the 16th / 17th centuries William Shakespeare used it freely in this way (Williams 1997). For example in Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 1) he has Mercutio engage Romeo in laddish banter, making innuendo of both vernacular names: ‘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-arse, and thou a popp’rin’ pear.’ Occurences in legend include a link between the Medlar and the German city of Geldern, whose various coats of arms have always included the Geldernsche Rose, a stylized medlar flower. Two 9th century local noblemen are said to have killed a dragon under a medlar tree in the area; it repeated the word Gelre! in its death rattle, inspiring the city’s name (Wikipedia 2023). Particularly relevant to this account is the tale that an Arenberg knight was coming back from battle and was found wounded under a medlar tree, with his blood on his shield. Three flowers from the tree fell on it and ‘the Emperor full of admiration said it should be his family’s coat of arms’ – illustrated below. Unfortunately the legend does not identify either knight or emperor, but there was an Arenberg at the court of the Roi Dagobert (c. 630 CE) and also at Charlemagne’s court, but it was most likely the first German Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (936–973) (HSH The Prince d’Arenberg, pers. comm. via M-C. de Laubarède, 2023). This ancient connection led to the kind sponsorship of Mespilus and its hybrids for IDS Trees and Shrubs Online by His Serene Highness.
The Medlar is far less well known in our North American area, although it can be grown widely, away from the coldest and driest central areas. Its date of introduction is unclear. Baird & Thieret (1989) critically discuss 18th and 19th century records, especially from the Deep South, and come to no definite conclusion. However, the discovery of ×Crataemespilus canescens, a natural hybrid between cultivated or naturalized Mespilus germanica and wild Crataegus brachyacantha, in a single Arkansas wood suggests a reasonably early date. M. germanica can be seen in major collections on both seaboards, and in the Great Lakes area (University of Washington Botanic Gardens 2023; Morton Arboretum 2023; Arnold Arboretum 2023). Cultivars are sometimes offered in the nursery trade.
Synonyms / alternative names
Mespilus germanica 'Breda Giant'
Fruit large, 5–6 cm across; vigorous growing, to 6 m. The original tree in Breda, The Netherlands, was known in 1934 and it has been distributed since about 1950 (van den Berk Nurseries 2023).
Very large fruited varieties have been known as Dutch Medlars for centuries (eg. Loudon 1838). While plants are sometimes distributed under the cultivar name ‘Dutch’ it is debatable whether they represent a single cultivar or a group of clones which might include cultivars such as ‘Bredase Reus’ and ‘Flanders Giant’.
Synonyms / alternative names
Mespilus germanica 'Persian'
A large-fruited, not very compact cultivar distributed mainly by nurseries in continental Europe (van den Berk Nurseries 2023).
Fruit flattened, sometimes distorted, very large, to 7 cm across and 70 g weight, ripening earlier than most, quickly falling and not keeping well. A strong grower, cropping annually but with low self-fertility so best grown with a second variety as pollinator. Found in France, in 1941 by the botanist V.A. Evreinoff, a specialist on fruit and nut trees (Drouet 2003; Carya 2023).
Fruit obovate, well flavoured, produced very freely, but not large by the standards of cultivars, typically 2.5–3 cm across. Vigour only moderate, suiting smaller gardens; tree often becoming twisted with age (Agroforestry Research Trust 2023; Royal Horticultural Society 2023). The most widely grown cultivar in Britain, and very old, already considered the ‘common’ medlar by Loudon (1838) who thought it ‘the only sort worth cultivating for its fruit in England’. Although an excellent plant, this view is no longer tenable. Any original connection to the city or county of Nottingham seems lost.
Fruit medium sized, low in tannins but high in sugars, sweet and good to eat without bletting. Originated in Germany in the 1960s (Carya 2023). The name translates as simply ‘sweet medlar’.
Defined by its seedless fruits (convenient when making preserves), this variety has been known at least since the 16th century (Baird & Thieret 1989). Most plants seen today have very small fruits about 2 cm across, and make thorny bushes. A larger-fruited clone (3–4 cm diameter) from Bulgaria is also in circulation, with the possibility of even larger-fruited seedless varieties taking on an almost legendary status among enthusiasts online (Heinemeyer 2021).
Heavy, reliable crops of medium sized fruit (Agroforestry Research Trust 2023; Royal Horticultural Society 2023). Named about 1975 from a plant in an NAKB (Netherlands Inspection Service for Horticulture) trial (van den Berk Nurseries 2023).