Mespilus germanica, known as the medlar or common medlar, is a large
shrub or small tree, and the name of the fruit of this tree. The fruit
has been cultivated since Roman times, and is unusual in being
available in winter, and in being eaten when bletted. It is eaten raw
and in a range of dishes. When the genus
Mespilus is included in the
genus Crataegus, the correct name for this species is Crataegus
1 Origins and related species
2 Description and ecology
3 Cultivation and uses
4 In literature
4.3 Other 16th- and 17th-century authors
4.4 Modern literature
7 External links
Origins and related species
Despite its Latin name, which means German or Germanic medlar, it is
indigenous to Persia (Iran), southwest Asia and also southeastern
Europe, especially the Black Sea coasts of Bulgaria and of modern
Turkey. It may have been cultivated for as long as 3,000 years. The
ancient Greek geographer
Strabo refers to a μέσπιλον
(mespilon) in Geographica, book 16, Chapter 4.
The flower has long sepals that remain on the fruit.
Mespilus germanica was the only known species of
medlar. However, in 1990, a new species was discovered in North
America, now named
Mespilus canescens. The loquat, Eriobotrya
japonica, is more distantly related than genera such as Crataegus,
Amelanchier, Peraphyllum, and Malacomeles, but was once thought to
be closely related, and is still sometimes called the 'Japanese
From an extensive study of literature and plant specimens, Kazimierz
Browicz concluded that the
true homeland [of
Mespilus germanica] is only in the south-eastern
part of the Balkan peninsula, in Asia Minor, on the Caucasus, Crimea,
Iran and possibly also in Turkmenia.
Description and ecology
Mespilus germanica 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 metres (26 ft)
tall. Generally, it is shorter and more shrub-like than tree-like.
With a lifespan of 30–50 years, the medlar tree is rather
short-lived. Its bark is greyish brown with deep vertical cracks
forming rectangular plates that tend to lift off. The leaves are dark
green and elliptic, 8–15 centimetres (3.1–5.9 in) long and
3–5 centimetres (1.2–2.0 in) wide. The leaves are densely
hairy (pubescent) below, and turn red in autumn before falling. It is
found across Southern Europe where it is generally rare. It is
reported to be naturalized in some woods in Southeast England, but is
found in few gardens.
The flowers have five broadly ovate white petals. The flowers
appear in late spring, are hermaphrodite, pollinated by bees, and
self-fertile. The flower is 6 centimetres (2.4 in) wide. The
reddish-brown fruit is a pome, 2–3 centimetres (0.79–1.18 in)
diameter, with wide-spreading persistent sepals around a central pit,
giving a 'hollow' appearance to the fruit.
Cultivation and uses
Bletting begins on one side of the fruit. Bletted flesh is brown; ripe
but unbletted flesh is white.
The medlar 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 centuries, however, it had been superseded
by other fruits, and is little cultivated today. M. germanica pomes
are one of the few fruits that become edible in winter, making it an
important tree for gardeners who wish to have fruit available all year
round. M. germanica plants can be grafted on to the rootstock of
another species, for example the pear, quince, or hawthorn, to improve
their performance in different soils.
Mespilus germanica fruits are hard and acidic, but become edible after
being softened, 'bletted', by frost, or naturally in storage given
sufficient time. Once softening begins, the skin rapidly takes on a
wrinkled texture and turns dark brown, and the inside reduces to the
consistency and flavour reminiscent of apple sauce. This process can
confuse those new to medlars, as a softened fruit looks as if it has
Once bletted, the fruit can be eaten raw and is often eaten as a
dessert, or used to make medlar jelly. They are used in "Medlar
cheese", which is similar to lemon curd, being made with the fruit
pulp, eggs, and butter. So-called medlar tea is usually not made
from M. germanica but from wolfberry or goji, which is sometimes
called "red medlar".
Mespilus germanica that are grown for their fruit include
'Hollandia', 'Nottingham', and 'Russian', the large-fruited
variety 'Dutch' (also known as 'Giant' or 'Monstrous'), 'Royal',
'Breda giant', and 'Large Russian'. The cultivar 'Nottingham' has
gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden
A basket of medlars
A fruit which is rotten before it is ripe, the medlar is used
figuratively in literature as a symbol of prostitution or premature
destitution. For example, in the Prologue to The Reeve's Tale,
Geoffrey Chaucer's character laments his old age, comparing himself to
the medlar, which he names using the slang term "open-arse":
This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is mowled also as myne heris —
But if I fare as dooth an open-ers.
That ilke fruyt is ever lenger the wers,
Til it be roten in mullok or in stree.
We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype;
In William Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, Apemantus forces an apple
upon Timon: "The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the
extremity of both ends. When thou wast in thy gilt and perfume, they
mock'd thee for too much curiosity; in thy rags thou know'st none, but
art despised for the contrary. There's a medlar for thee; eat it",
perhaps including a pun on "meddler", one who meddles in affairs, as
well as on rottenness. (IV.iii.300–305).
In Measure for Measure, Lucio excuses his denial of past fornication
because "they would else have married me to the rotten medlar."
In As You Like It, Rosalind makes a complicated pun involving grafting
her interlocuter with the trees around her which bear love letters and
with a medlar "I'll graff it with you, and then I shall graff it with
a medlar. Then it will be the earliest fruit i' th' country; for
you'll be rotten ere you be half ripe, and that's the right virtue of
the medlar." (III.ii.116–119).
The most famous reference to medlars, often bowdlerized until modern
editions accepted it, appears in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, when
Mercutio laughs at Romeo's unrequited love for his mistress Rosaline
(II, 1, 34–38):
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 pop'rin pear!
In the 16th and 17th centuries, medlars were bawdily called
"open-arses" because of the shape of the fruits, inspiring boisterous
or humorously indecent puns in many Elizabethan and Jacobean plays.
Other 16th- and 17th-century authors
In Miguel de Cervantes'
Don Quixote the eponymous hero and Sancho
Panza "Stretch themselves out in the middle of a field and stuff
themselves with acorns or medlars."
In François Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, medlars play a role
in the origin of giants, including the eponymous characters. After
Cain killed Abel, the blood of the just saturated the Earth, causing
enormous medlars to grow. Humans who ate these medlars grew in great
proportions. Those whose bodies grew longer became giants, and were
the ancestors of Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Thomas Dekker also draws a comparison in his play The Honest Whore: "I
scarce know her, for the beauty of her cheek hath, like the moon,
suffered strange eclipses since I beheld it: women are like medlars,
no sooner ripe but rotten."
Another reference can be found in Thomas Middleton's A Trick to Catch
the Old One in the character of Widow Medler, impersonated by a
courtesan, hence the following pun: "Who? Widow Medler? She lies open
to much rumour." (II, 2, 59).
In the Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, Glückel recalls having had a
craving for medlars when she was pregnant with her son Joseph, but
ignoring the desire. When the baby was born, he was sickly and too
weak to be breastfed. Remembering a superstition about the dangers of
pregnant women not fulfilling their cravings, Glückel asked for
someone to fetch her some medlars for the baby. As soon as the fruit
touched the baby's lips, he ate all the pulp given to him, and was
then able to be breastfed. (Book 4, Section 14)
In modern literature, some writers have mentioned this fruit:
Saki uses medlars in his short stories, which often play on the decay
of Edwardian society. In "The Peace of Mowsle Barton", the outwardly
quiet farmstead features a medlar tree and corrosive hatred. In "The
Boar Pig", the titular animal, Tarquin Superbus, is the point of
contact between society ladies cheating to get into the garden party
of the season and a not entirely honest young schoolgirl who lures him
away by strategically throwing well-bletted medlars: "Come, Tarquin,
dear old boy; you know you can't resist medlars when they're rotten
C.J. Sansom: in Dark Fire refers to "... medlar orchard. The white
scentless blossoms of that strange fruit, which must be left to hang
on the tree until it decays ..... "
Italian novelist Giovanni Verga's Naturalist narrative I Malavoglia is
titled The House by the Medlar Tree in the English translation.
Medlar growing on Hawthorn rootstock
Ripe (bletted) and unripe fruit
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germanica, Rosaceae) from antiquity to obscurity". Economic Botany. 43
(3): 328–372. doi:10.1007/BF02858732. JSTOR 4255177.
^ "Perseus Search Results". www.perseus.tufts.edu.
^ Campbell, C.S.; Evans, R.C.; Morgan, D.R.; Dickinson, T.A.;
Arsenault, M.P. (2007). "Phylogeny of subtribe Pyrinae (formerly the
Maloideae, Rosaceae): Limited resolution of a complex evolutionary
Plant Systematics and Evolution. 266 (1–2):
^ a b c Mitchell, Alan (1978). A Field Guide to the Trees of Britain
and Northern Europe (2 ed.). Collins. p. 277.
^ "Plants for a Future".
^ "Medlar". Royal Horticultural Society. 2011. Retrieved 8 July
^ Glew, R.H.; Ayaz, F.A.; Sanz, C.; VanderJagt, D.J.; Huang, H.S.;
Chuang, L.T.; Strnad, M. (2003). "Changes in sugars, organic acids and
amino acids in medlar (
Mespilus germanica L.) during fruit development
and maturation". Food Chemistry. 83 (3): 363–369.
^ Rop, O.; Sochor, J.; Jurikova, T.; Zitka, O.; Skutkova, H.; Mlcek,
J.; Salas, P.; Krska, B.; Babula, P.; Adam, V.; Kramarova, D.;
Beklova, M.; Provaznik, I.; Kizek, R. (2011). "Effect of Five
Different Stages of Ripening on Chemical Compounds in Medlar (Mespilus
germanica L.)". Molecules. 16 (74–91).
^ a b Martin, James. "Medlars recipes". British Broadcasting
Corporation. Retrieved 8 July 2013.
^ "Nigel Slater on... medlars". Royal Horticultural Society. Archived
from the original on 13 October 2012. Retrieved 8 July 2013.
^ McAdam, Diana (12 October 2007). "Goji berries: The new superfruit".
The (Daily) Telegraph. Retrieved 8 July 2013.
^ Phipps, J.B.; O'Kennon, R.J.; Lance, R.W. 2003. Hawthorns and
medlars. Royal Horticultural Society, Cambridge, U.K.
^ Glowinski, L. 1991. The complete book of fruit growing in Australia.
Thomas C. Lothian Pty Ltd, Port Melbourne, Victoria.
^ "RHS Plantfinder –
Mespilus germanica 'Nottingham'". Retrieved 4
^ "AGM Plants – Ornamental" (PDF). Royal Horticultural Society. July
2017. p. 64. Retrieved 4 April 2018.
Media related to
Mespilus germanica at Wikimedia Commons
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