RHS Growing Guides
How to grow medlars
Our detailed growing guide will help you with each step in successfully growing Medlars.
Medlar fruits are a curious delicacy, popular in medieval times but now not widely grown. Picked in autumn when still unripe, hard and bitter, the small golden-brown fruits must be stored for several weeks to ripen (or blet) until they are dark brown, soft, sweet and aromatic. They can then either be eaten (traditionally teamed with cheese and port) or, more popularly, used to make a fragrant amber jelly to accompany rich meats. They can also be used in sweet desserts.
Medlar fruits are very rarely available to buy, although you may sometimes find medlar jelly, so the best way to enjoy these unusual fruits is to grow your own.
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The common medlar, Mespilus germanica, forms a large, broad tree, up to 8m tall and wide, best suited to medium to large gardens. There are also several varieties to choose from, which may form smaller trees or produce larger or better flavoured fruits.
Most medlar trees are sold grafted onto either hawthorn or quince roots, to keep them more compact. The most common rootstocks are:
Crataegus (hawthorn) – semi-vigorous
‘Quince A’ – semi-vigorous
‘Quince C’ – semi-dwarfing
Grafted medlar trees eventually reach 4–6m (13–20ft) tall and wide. They are generally trained as bush, a tree with a clear trunk 75–90cm (21/2–3ft) long. Training as half-standard with the clear trunk 1.2–1.5m (4–5ft) long is also well suited and compliments their spreading habit.
You only need one medlar tree for a good crop of fruit, as they are self-pollinating and there is no need for a pollination partner.
When choosing any fruit trees, look in particular for varieties with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), which shows they performed well in trials, so should grow and crop reliably – see our list of AGM fruit and veg.
You can also see many productive fruit trees, including medlars, in the fruit and veg areas of all the RHS gardens, so do visit to see how they are grown, compare the varieties and pick up useful tips. In particular, the RHS Gardens Hyde Hall and Wisley have several productive medlar trees.
What and where to buy
Medlar trees may not be widely available in garden centres, but specialist fruit nurseries and online fruit tree suppliers should stock several varieties.
Choose a grafted tree on a semi-dwarfing or semi-vigorous rootstock (usually Crataegus, ‘Quince A’ or ‘Quince C’), unless you have a large amount of space.
Medlars are sold as young trees ready for planting, in two forms:
Bare-root trees – only available while dormant, from late autumn to early spring, for immediate planting, and generally cheaper than trees in pots
Containerised trees –available all year round for planting at any time, but winter is preferable
When buying a tree in person, look for well-balanced branches with a strong central shoot (leader). Also check the roots and avoid pot-bound plants, as tightly packed roots may be stunted and not grow well once in the ground.
Medlars grow best in a deep, fertile, well-drained soil and are happy in most soil types, except very chalky or poorly drained. They prefer full sun but will still crop in partial shade. The leaves and flowers are easily damaged by strong winds and late frosts, so choose a warm, sheltered planting spot that is not prone to late frosts.
Medlar trees form a wide canopy, so position them at least 4.5m (15ft) from other trees or buildings. If planting in a lawn, remove a circle of grass at least 1m (3¼ft) in diameter, so the tree’s roots don’t have to compete with the grass for rainwater and nutrients while they get established.
Prepare your tree for planting by giving it a thorough watering if it’s in a pot or by standing it in a bucket of water for half an hour if it’s a bare-root tree.
Medlar trees are easy to plant and should settle in quickly – you’ll find lots of advice in our easy planting guides:
See out guide to staking trees: Trees: staking
Medlar trees need little maintenance once established, apart from watering during dry periods and feeding to boost fruiting.
Water newly planted medlar trees regularly for the first growing season. Then keep watering young trees during dry spells for the next few years.
Established trees should only need watering in long dry spells, especially when the fruits are forming.
In late winter or early spring (after feeding), spread a thick layer of mulch, such as garden compost or well-rotted manure, around the base of your medlar tree, to help hold moisture in the soil and suppress weeds.
In early spring, feed with a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4 or fish, blood and bone. Scatter one handful per square metre/yard around trees growing in bare soil, and one and a half around those in grass.
Medlars are not generally easy to propagate. Commercially, named varieties are usually grafted – by whip grafting or T-budding – onto quince or hawthorn roots, to limit their size. These are skilled processes but can be fun to try.
You can also grow medlars from seed, particularly the common medlar, Mespilus germanica, but they can be slow to germinate and grow. Named varieties won’t come true from seed, so the resulting trees may have lower quality fruit than the parent plant.
Pruning and Training
Prune young medlar trees as you would apple and pear trees. Trained as bush, a tree with a clear trunk 75–90cm (21/2–3ft) long. Training as half-standards with the clear trunk 1.2–1.5m (4–5ft) long is also well suited and compliments their spreading habit. If you get your tree into a good shape early on, then only minimal pruning will be needed in future years. Aim for an open-centred, goblet shape.
Established medlar trees can be pruned in winter if required, which usually simply consists of removing any congested, dead or damaged shoots, to keep the canopy open, and shortening any overly long branches, so they don’t droop. Medlars are tip-bearers, meaning they fruit on the tips of small side-shoots, so take care not to remove these.
Medlar trees are usually grafted onto quince or hawthorn roots, in which case, if any suckers or shoots sprout around the base of the tree, below the graft point.
Harvest medlar fruit in late October or November, after they’ve been exposed to frost. They will still be unripe, hard and bitter, so not yet ready for eating. They will rarely ripen on the tree in the UK. Harvest in dry conditions when the stalk parts easily from the tree.
Before eating or cooking medlar fruits, they must be ‘bletted’ or allowed to ripen in storage, to make them soft and sweet. During bletting, the starches turn to sugars, and the acids and tannins decrease – and while this improves the flavour, it also makes the fruits look offputtingly brown and rotten, which may explain why they are no longer widely grown or harvested. But this process is not rotting, it is ripening – the fruits should be sweet, juicy and aromatic.
To blet your medlars, first briefly dip the stalks in a strong salt solution to prevent rotting. Then lay the fruits out on trays or straw in a cool, frost-free place, such as a garage. Make sure they are not touching and their stalks face upward. After two or three weeks, they will become soft, darker brown and slightly wrinkled. Check them regularly and use as soon as they are suitably succulent, sweet and aromatic – the flesh should have the consistency and flavour of dark apple sauce, with hints of dates or apricots. The leathery skin is not edible, so just scoop out the soft flesh and remove the large seeds.
Bletted medlars are traditionally used to make a fragrant, amber-coloured jelly (see below) to complement rich meats and game. They can also be used in sweet desserts, or even eaten uncooked, typically with cheese and port.
Bletted medlars should be used straight away or can be frozen.
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