DESCRIPTION AND USE OF MEDLAR
C. Bignami * and C. Tsipouridis **
* Department of Crop Production - University of Tuscia, Viterbo - Italy
**Pomology Institute-National Agricultural Research Foundation, Naoussa - Greece
BOTANICAL SPECIES: Mespilus germanica L.
HABITAT. According to the most recent theory, partially corresponding to that of Vavilov, the area of origin of medlar should be localised in the south-eastern part of the Balkan peninsula, in Asia Minor, on the Caucasus, Crimea, northern Iran and Turkmenistan. Others have stated that medlar should be native of south-eastern Europe (Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Crimea). The species has been naturalised in central and southern Europe, in southern England and in the Channel Islands. At different times the medlar was introduced in other countries: two centuries ago in North America by the Jesuits; in the 17th century in South Africa. The specific name ‘germanica’ adopted by Linneus refers to the widespread presence of wild medlars in Germany, which he considered the area of origin of the species. Although the discovery of leaf impressions in the interglacial deposits in East Germany should support the Linnean theory, this statement is generally considered incorrect.
Medlar grows on well-drained soils and has a good adaptability as regards soil fertility. The plant can tolerate temperatures as low as -20°, -25° in winter.
GENETIC VARIABILITY. Medlar is considered a species with low genetic variability and so subject to high risks of genetic erosion. Wild seedlings and cultivars do exist, but few advances have been made towards improved varieties in comparison with other minor Rosaceae. Evreinoff (1953) cited 23 different races, comprising wild and half wild types. The cultivars Dutch (with big fruit), Common (with medium fruit), Royal (with small fruit), Nottingham (with small, tasty fruit) and Stoneless medlar are probably the best known. The names of about seven cultivars are reported in old Italian pomological texts. The present availability in Italian nurseries is more limited. There are usually three cultivars available: Common (German medlar), Dutch and Royal. Local selections are sometimes sold, with name derived from the location (Medlar of Castelraniero) or the form and size of the fruit (Medium fruit, Giant; Drop-shaped) or from the phenological characteristics (Early medlar).
At present, quite a large collection of medlar is located at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository (NCGR) in Corvallis, where accessions from the Former Soviet Union, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States are maintained.
PLANT. Medlar is a small deciduous tree or shrub, growing to a high of 4-6 m. Thorniness is present in wild forms and attenuated or absent in the cultivated ones. Medlar is a long-living species (up to three centuries, according to some statements).
LEAVES. Alternate, simple, with very short petiole and lanceolate or elongate-oblong lamina, dark green in the upper surface, pubescent and greyish beneath. Margin entire, serrate at the apex.
FLOWERS. Medlar produce very ornamental solitary flowers nearly sessile at the tip of the growth of the year, like quince. Flowers are big (2-5 cm wide), pentamerous and hermaphrodite, with five white petals sometime shaded pink and long, narrow, hairy sepals, 30-40 stamens and an inferior ovary with five carpels. Each locule contains two ovules, originating generally only one seed. Flowering time corresponds to late April-mid- May.
Medlar is self-fertile and self-pollinating. The self-pollination is facilitated by the position that stigmas and anthers reciprocally present; only in the latest stages of flowering cross pollination can more easily occur. The production of fruit by parthenocarpy is also reported in literature.
FRUIT. The fruit is a pome, originated from the inferior ovary, generally with five stony seeds (maximum potential number ten), a disk at the top, at the edge of which five persistent and elongated sepals protrude. The fruits have variable shape, from conical-elongated, to spherical or flat. The size ranges from very small (about 10 g) to big (more than 80 g). The skin colour is brown, sometimes tinged reddish. The brown-reddish flesh is hard and austere at ripening time and it becomes soft and edible when the over-ripening process, named bletting, occurs as a result of time and frost.
USES. The most common use of medlar fruits is the raw consumption after bletting. The harvest of fruit bletted on the plant in late autumn or the harvest of fruits at physiological ripening and their storage in the straw until over-ripening are well known traditions still alive today. The bletted fruits have a sweet and slightly acid flesh. Jams and jellies are obtained. In cookery a surprisingly long list of recipes can be found.
Tannin has been extracted in the past from bark, leaves and immature fruits and used for tanning. The fine and hard wood can be used to obtain different articles of turnery.
As an ornamental plant, medlar can also be employed to very interesting effect in small gardens.
Medlar was an important medicinal plant in the Middle Ages. The astringency of the fruits has been well known since ancient times. Medlar bletted pulp or syrup was a popular remedy against enteritis, and modern medicine has recognised in the twenties its healing properties.
Medlar can be used as rootstock for the cultivars, but quince is preferred because of the faster growth; it has also been used as dwarfing rootstock for pear and quince but one of the limits for the combination medlar-pear is the higher growth rate of the scion.