Medlar

Medlars are ornamental, flowering trees with pretty blossom, good autumn colour and fruits which are edible, although not to everyone’s taste. Their fruit is tart if eaten raw, but makes pleasantly flavoured jellies or can be used in desserts. Left to soften the fruit mellows and is a traditional, if unusual, treat.

Medlar

Quick facts

Common name Common medlar or Dutch medlar
Botanical name Mespilus germanica
Group Fruit
Flowering time Late spring and early summer
Planting time Autumn
Height and spread 6m x 8m (20ft x 25ft)
Aspect Full sun to light shade
Hardiness Hardy
Difficulty Easy

Cultivation notes

Medlars tolerate most soils, unless very chalky or badly drained, but thrive in a deep, fertile, well-drained soil. They will do best in a warm, sheltered site in sun but can be grown in partial shade. Leaves and flowers are easily damaged by strong winds.

Due to their spreading habit medlars are best grown as standard or half-standard trees, (trees with a well-developed clear trunk), 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) for half standard and 1.8-2.1m (6-7ft) for standard. Medlars are grafted onto quince or hawthorn rootstocks. The semi-vigorous Quince A and BA29 rootstocks offer greater stability, producing trees 4-6m (13-20ft) in height and 6-8m (18-24ft) in spread.

Planting and staking

If planting a new tree, ideally do so between November and March, and if planting more than one, allow 5-6m (16-19ft) between each tree and from other plants to allow for the crown to develop its natural habit. It is important for the tree to develop a strong straight clear trunk to support the spreading crown. 

If buying partly trained standard or half-standard, tie the stem to a short stake at planting. If starting with a maiden (tree without a partially developed crown) support the stem with a long stake for the first three or four years to ensure development of a straight stem that can support the spreading crown. If the stem of the partly trained tree appears weak, use a long stake. 

Feeding and watering

In March apply a general fertiliser, such as growmore, at 70g per sq m (2oz per sq yd) over the rooting area. After applying fertiliser, mulch with well-rotted farmyard manure or compost.

Adequate moisture is essential to obtain strong growth and good cropping, and young trees in particular should be watered well during dry spells in spring and summer for the first three or four years.

Pruning and training

Medlars need annual pruning in winter to maintain a healthy shape encourage good flowering and fruiting. Prune as follows:

  • For the first three or four years cut back the longest upwards growing shoots or leaders, of the main framework branches by about one-third of the previous summer’s growth, always pruning back to an outward-facing bud
  • Cut back to the point of origin any badly placed shoots that cross over the centre. The aim is to achieve an open-centred, well-spaced branch framework
  • Leave short shoots less than 23cm (9 in) unpruned but remove poorly placed or crowded longer branches
  • After the fourth year, lightly winter prune to keep an open framework, removing any crowded, diseased or dead branches. Mature trees do not respond well to hard pruning

If buying a young tree, if possible, buy a part-trained standard or half-standard tree. For formative pruning, see the advice for apples and pears.

Harvesting medlars

Medlars are ready to pick in late October or early November when they are about 2.5-5cm (1-2in) across. At this stage they are not fully ripe.

You can leave fruit on the tree well into autumn to develop flavour provided there is no danger of frosts. Pick in dry conditions when the stalk parts easily from the tree.

Storage until ripe

The fruits are unpalatable immediately after picking, but can be used to pleasantly flavoured jellies, can be used in desserts and for wine-making. To be eaten raw they must be stored before using.

Ideally briefly dip the stalks in a saturated salt solution to prevent rotting. Store fruit eye downwards and not touching in trays in a cool, dark, frost-free place. Use when the fruit is ‘bletted’, that is, the flesh softens and turns brown, but not rotten. This will usually take about two or three weeks.

Propagation

Medlars are grafted or budded onto quince rootstocks or could be grown from seed. Fruit nurseries will often supply rootstocks and carry out the grafting or budding for you if you have suitable scion material.

Cultivar selection

Several forms of medlar are available;

  • Mespilus germanica ‘Dutch’: spreading habit and fairly large fruit
  • M. germanica ‘Nottingham’: more upright habit and the best flavour, but the fruits are fairly small
  • M. germanica ‘Royal’: fairly upright habit and medium-sized fruit
  • M. germanica ‘Large Russian’: large fruit with good flavour

Links

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Problems

Medlars are almost always trouble-free, but are occasionally attacked by leaf-eating caterpillars, which can be picked off or sprayed with a suitable insecticide just after bud burst.

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