Autumn is the season of harvest and a fruit that is very late to ripen at this time of year is the medlar, or Mespilus germanica.
The medlar can be grown as a small tree or large shrub, when it is grown as a shrub it reaches around 20ft (6m) tall but up to 25ft (7.5m) wide, it is therefore very broad spreading and forms a loose rounded shape and needs to be given plenty of room in a border.
When it is grown as a small tree it will have a clear stem or trunk, rather than many branches emerging from the base of the plant. The medlar is deciduous and is grown partly for its attractive habit as well as its large, glossy dark green leaves which turn wonderful shades of bright yellow during autumn. During late spring the medlar bears large, pink-tinged white flowers at the ends of the short shoots.
However the main reason for growing the medlar is for its fruits which form during late summer and autumn. These are spherical, 5cm (2in) across, brown and rather apple-like. To become edible they must be ‘bletted’ or softened by the first frosts. The skin becomes wrinkled and turns dark brown and the insides become soft and look almost rotten. It isn’t in fact spoiled and it has the consistency and flavour of apple sauce. This is the time to harvest and enjoy the fruit, either eaten raw or in desserts or jellies.
Medlars are easy to grow and like moderately fertile, moist but well drained soil in full sun or light shade. Little maintenance is required to keep them healthy but during the dormant season weak and crossing branches can be removed to keep an open crown.
At RHS Garden Hyde Hall a large, mature medlar grown as a shrub can be found at the top of Clover Hill. It is a cultivar called ‘Nottingham’ which has an enhanced flavour over the straight species. Newly planted, semi-mature medlar trees can be found in the new Winter Garden at RHS Garden Hyde Hall. These have been grown with a clear stem and through the Winter Garden will provide wonderful autumn colour and textural interest as the fruits ripen. Other selections available include ‘Dutch’ which has russet-brown fruit.
RHS advice: how to grow medlars
Cobnuts and filberts
Fruit for pots