E. Bellini*, C. Bignami **, E. Giordani*

* Department of Horticulture - University of Florence - Italy

** Department of Crop Production - University of Tuscia, Viterbo - Italy


BOTANICAL SPECIES: Crataegus azarolus L.

FAMILY: Rosaceae

HABITAT. According to Vavilov, the area of origin of azarole is the western Asia, where it grows spontaneous in different forms. The species is presently diffused from the Mediterranean basin (northern Africa, Spain, Italy, southern France; Malta, Crete, Aegean Islands) through Asia Minor and Iran to central Asia (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tadgikistan and Kyrgyzystan).

Azarole prefers warm climate, sunny positions and well drained soils; it dislikes excess of clay. Some ecotypes can tolerate extreme conditions, like the dry soils and cold winters characterising the semi-desertic areas and steppes where the plants can be found .

GENETIC VARIABILITY. Azarole has never been cultivated in industrial plantations and is increasingly rare also in domestic orchards and gardens. As a consequence the knowledge about taxonomy, varieties and genetic variability is limited. The high number of species and the possibility of easy hybridisation make the classification of the genus Crataegus and of the species azarolus difficult. According to Christensen’s revision (1992) of the taxa of Crataegus sect. Crataegus the species azarolus belongs to the series Orientales and includes four different botanical varieties: azarolus, aronia, chlorocarpa and pontica.

The few pomological descriptions of the old texts report the existence of few selected varieties (in Italy, Azzeruolo rosso d’Italia, Azzeruolo bianco d’Italia, Azzeruolo giallo; in Spain, Monstruoso and Oriuhela ) and spontaneous ecotypes, mainly differing in the size and shape of the fruit and the colour of the skin. In Italy at least 4 types can presently be found in nurseries or in the gardens: with small, red fruit; with medium sized, red-orange fruit; with medium sized, yellow, mealy fleshed fruit; with big, pale yellow, tasty and flavoured fruit.

PLANT. Azarole is a small tree or shrub 4-8 m height, deciduous, with a roundish canopy and more or less lanate or lanate-tomentose twigs. The growth is slow. Flowering and fruiting take place at the apex of the annual growth, which dries after harvest. The growth of the new year start from a lateral bud below. The peculiar model of growth and the high number of short fruiting shoots give to the plant a complex and tortuous structure, with a high ornamental effect.

LEAVES. The leaves are alternate, more or less coriaceous, with a short petiole. The shape is rounded or cuneate at base, deeply lobed, with 1 to 4 pairs of lobes, depending on type of shoot and variety, obtuse, acute or cuspidate, margin nearly entire or incise at the apex. The upper surface is generally glabrescent, lustrous and the under surface pale or greyish green, glabrous or appressed-pubescent.

FLOWERS. 10-20 small white flowers with short and lanate or lanate-tomentose pedicels are grouped in corymbs at the apex of the growth of the year, originated from mixed buds. The flower is pentamerous, with calyx tomentose, 5 sepals short and triangular, roundish petals, 2-3 styles and 16-22 stamens. Flowering time generally occurs in the first half of May. Self incompatibility has been reported.

FRUIT. A pome globose, depressed-globose or slightly pyriform, 2-2.5 (0.8-3.5) cm wide, with a maximum of 5 stony seeds (generally 2-3) and low flesh/seed ratio. The skin is pale or deep yellow, orange-red or red. The flesh is sweet and acid, more or less juicy, tasty and flavoured depending on the variety. They ripen in September-beginning of October and can last at low temperature for weeks or some months, depending on the variety and storage conditions.

USES. Azarole can be used for different purposes: as ornamental, fruit and medicinal plant. The small, elegant, tree is handsome for its shape and for flowering and fruiting habit. As a fruit tree, azarole is cultivated only in domestic orchards and gardens, as isolated plant or grafted in the hedges of C. monogyna. The fruit has a low resistance to handling and can be damaged lacking in care during harvest and transportation. Azarole was appreciated for fresh consumption for many centuries and it was offered as a delicacy on Renaissance tables. In Italy azaroles are still sold in September and October in local markets and in ‘specialities’ shops at quite high prices. Old and new recipes based on rare fruits rediscover azarole pomes as ingredient. Preserved in syrup or in spirits and candied fruits, tasty jams and jellies can be obtained; for this purpose, an harvest earlier of two weeks with respect to the full ripening has been suggested. In natural parks and gardens azarole contributes to the feeding of birds and wild animals. As other species belonging to the genus Crataegus, C. azarolus has medicinal properties, still partially unknown. Flowers, leaves and fruits have a positive activity on heart, due to the content of hypotensive and cardiotonic principles. The potential use of azarole as dwarfing rootstock for pear and apple has been recently experimented.