Popcorn Gets Bigger, But Medlar Is Still Ugly (Not To Me)

   A couple of weeks ago I wrote about increasing the poppability of my home-grown popcorn by exposing the kernels to the vapor of a saturated salt solution. Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored popcorn, a variety that usually pops fairly well, popped to 1/3 greater volume.
    This week Pink Pearl, a variety that’s not usually a very good popper, underwent testing. The result: No effect of the treatment; both the treated and untreated batches popped pretty well. Was it the change in the weather, stronger hints of spring? Perhaps. (Previously, I pointed out how cold weather outside turns indoor air drier, perhaps too dry for good popcorn popping.) At any rate, Pink Pearl was tasty.

Medlar Teaches How To Prune A Fruit Plant

    The weather change also had the effect of drawing me outdoors more — for pruning. Looking at my medlar tree’s branches going every which way, I scratched my head (figuratively) wondering where to start, what to cut.
    Medlar is a fruit tree (more on medlar later), and the first step in pruning any fruit tree is attending to light. Light provides the energy for photosynthesis which translates into flavorful fruits. The goal is to let every branch bathe in sunlight, which also helps thwart potential disease problems.
    So I stopped scratching my head and started with a few dramatic pruning cuts, lopping some of the larger limbs back to their origins. Medlar has a naturally spreading growth habit, so cuts were aimed at removing limbs trying to fill in and shade the the center of the tree. I wanted a whorl of branches reaching up and out.

Medlar tree, after pruning

Medlar tree, after pruning

    Next to go were dead, diseased, and broken branches. I saw remnants of cicada damage from two years ago. Away with most of those stems also.
    For the next cuts, you have to know how a particular kind of fruit tree bears fruit. At one extreme are peaches. They bear only on one-year-old stems so need aggressive pruning each year to stimulate new shoots that become next year’s bearing, one-year-old stems. At the other extreme are apple and pear trees. They bear fruit on long-lived spurs, which are stumpy, branching stubs that develop on older limbs, so relatively little pruning is needed.
    Medlar’s bearing habit lies somewhere between those two extremes. I shortened a few very old branches to invigorate them with new growth.
    On most fruit trees, drooping branches make poorer fruit. Probably for medlar also. So off came the drooping branches, either back to non-droopy portions or to their origin.
    Finally, some detail work: shortening or removing those vigorous, vertical shoots called watersprouts; thinning out smaller areas of congested branches; removing stems growing too close to where major limbs exit the trunk; and lopping down root sprouts growing at or near ground level from the rootstock.
    Besides fruit, medlar offers beauty. Part of the beauty is the craggy shape of the tree, its muscular limbs clothed in golden brown bark. I stepped back to admire the tree and my work after pruning. If I’ve done a good job, the tree looks happily ready to bask in light and air and, because the major cuts removed limbs at the origin, hardly looks like it’s been pruned.

Medlar Teaches To Eat With Your Tongue, Not Your Eyes

    Medlar is a fruit whose popularity peaked in the Middle Ages. Charlemagne was a fan, a big fan who demanded the tree be planted in every town he conquered.

Medlar, fruit in summer

Medlar, fruit in summer

    Despite its popularity, even in the Middle Ages, the fruit has often been described disparagingly — for its appearance, though, not its flavor. The fruits resemble small, russeted apples, tinged dull yellow or red, with their calyx ends (across from the stems) flared open. “Open-arse” was the name Chaucer chose. A more recent writer described medlar as “a crabby-looking, brownish-green, truncated, little spheroid of unsympathetic appearance. “ (All recounted, along with information about growing, procuring, and eating medlars in the chapter on medlar in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)

Medlar, after bletting

Medlar, after bletting

    Oh, one more quirk about medlar: The fruit, rock hard at harvest, needs to be bletted before eating. This means gently setting it on a counter in a cool room for a couple of weeks, or more, depending to the temperature, during which time the fruit’s interior turns to brown mush. Ugly to look at, but the flavor has a refreshing briskness with winy overtones, like old-fashioned applesauce laced with cinnamon. Between the fruits’ appearance and their need for bletting, you’ll never find medlars for sale on a supermarket shelf.
    Perhaps the fruit is ugly. The tree is not. I already mentioned the attractive form and color of the limbs. The white flowers, opening here in May, are like those of a wild rose, each one enhanced because its late opening gets a backdrop of a whorl of already unfurled, dark, green leaves. The tree grows only 8 or 10 feet high and wide and will fruit without another pollinator, so is perfect for a small yard. No need to decide whether to plant a fruit tree or an ornamental tree; medlar is both trees in one.

Medlar, tree in bloom

Medlar, tree in bloom

Ugly, But Tasty, Old Fruit

Today’s fruit du jour is medlar (Mespilus germanica), one of the most-disgusting-looking fruits you could imagine. Don’t stop reading! Medlar was a popular fruit in the Middle Ages, and with good reason. Charlemagne was so taken by this fruit that he decreed that it be planted in every town he conquered. Medlar needs some contemporary pr.
Let’s get those bad looks out of the way. Picture a small apple with a rough, russeted skin and the calyx end — the end opposite the stem — flared open. Not very pretty, eh? That homely appearance gave rise to

some not-so-complimentary nicknames. “Open-arse” fruit, for example, by Chaucer. Or, from Shakespeare, more discretely, “open-etcetera.”

Ugliness, for medlars, is not just skin deep. When harvested, which was a few weeks ago here, the fruits are white and rock hard within, and not ready for eating. The fruit must be bletted, or ripened, a couple of weeks or more. I blet my medlars by setting them on the cool, north windowsill facing my kitchen sink. With the woodstove at full tilt, the air at the windowsill might still be too dry for best bletting, so I also have a few fruits bletting beneath a small bell jar in another cool part of the kitchen. A wrinkling, dark skin tells me that bletting is complete. At this point the flesh has experienced a dramatic transformation —  to brown mush.
I put all that ugliness behind me and taste that brown mush. Delicious! Something like very rich applesauce with hints of wine. I’ve only eaten them straight

up. They allegedly also cook up into delicious tarts, jellies, “fools,” and the like. Here’s a simple recipe for a tart, dating back to 1660, from Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook: “Take medlars that are rotten, strain them, and set them on a chaffing dish of coals, season them with sugar, cinamon and ginger, put some yolks of eggs to them, let it boil a little, and lay it in a cut tart; being baked scrape on sugar.”

(For a once popular fruit, medlar has had its share of pejoratives. “Rotten,” in the above recipe, means bletted. But many fruits, including European pears and avocados, need to be harvested unripe to ripen off the plant. Admittedly, few are brown mush when ready to eat.)
So much for medlar’s bad looks and good flavor. Let’s take a good look at the plant itself.
Those ugly fruits ripen on a very attractive, small tree that never reaches more than about eight feet high or a spread of equal width. It’s a year ‘round beauty, even now, leafless, with its craggy branches and light brown bark. In spring, in contrast to many other fruit trees, the leaves unfold before the blossoms; each

blossom, opening singly and with white petals like a wild rose (a relative), is then framed by a whorled backdrop of forest-green leaves.

The tree is also self-pollinating, so does not need a companion to set fruit. Small size, beauty, and ability to perform solo make a medlar tree perfect for a small yard. One tree, then, doubles as your ornamental plant and your fruit tree.
Pests can be a big bugaboo when growing tree fruits. The best way to deal with pests is to avoid them, and the best way to avoid them is to grow kinds or varieties of fruits naturally resistant to pests. That’s one reason I suggest against growing apples pretty much anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. (Two of apples most significant pests, plum curculio and apple maggot, are absent from many areas of the West.) Nectarines, peaches, apricots, and plums similarly suffer from serious insect and disease problems, again, especially east of the Rocky Mountains.
You may wonder, then: What’s left to grow? Pears, for one. Also, a slew of other tree fruits that are not well-known, fruits such as medlar, pawpaw, persimmon, cornelian cherry, raisin tree, mulberry, and Asian

Bletting medlars

pear.  These uncommon fruits all have excellent flavor and few or no pest problems (and play the leading roles in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden). They also demand little expertise or time in pruning as compared with some of the common tree fruits.

Not that biting into a fresh-picked, good variety of well-grown apple or peach isn’t a heavenly experience. And not that the occasional tree of such fruits some years bears a decent crop without trouble. But it pays to play the averages and proceed with eyes wide open. What are the chances for a good harvest and how much effort (and learning) will be devoted to upping the odds?