Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: Going Medieval on the Streets of Berkeley

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday January 08, 2008

I was at that footsore stage where one’s mind settles fixedly on the goal—getting home and barefoot—but the shrub by the sidewalk stopped me anyway. It looked apple-ish but different; its leaves were longer and larger, and it was bearing fruit I didn’t recognize. It was obviously something in the rose family, but half the fruit-bearing trees I meet are roses: not much of a distinction.  

The fruit resembled nothing so much as giant brown rosehips. Each had that telltale five-flanged calyx remnant on its distal end. The skin was slightly rough, like a Bosc pear’s. They were almost perfectly globular. They tweaked at something in the back of my brain; I almost knew what they were but couldn’t quite name them. It was like running into a long-lost second cousin.  

After snooping around as much as felt decent, I was still stumped. There were noises from a back window of the house, though, so I walked up the driveway and yoo-hooed.  

A youngish guy well-decorated with plaster dust and paint poked his head out the door. He was the new owner of the place, friendly and willing to chat, and fortunately someone had told him what his acquisition was: a medlar tree. 

Well. I had seen medlars before—the plant at least—as whip-trunked, indistinguishable little saplings in a San Francisco nursery. How is it that I hadn’t seen the fruit at, say, the Berkeley Bowl? Maybe I had. Apparently my brain has reached field capacity on some matters, as the runoff seems to be increasing.  

Humans have invented writing for such problems, though, so of course I hit the books as soon as I’d hobbled home. What I found reinforced my still only half-formed conviction that some things, like calomel and the bombard, are obsolete for good reasons.  

Medlars, Melaspilas germanica, are indeed roses, related to loquats (which get called “Japanese medlars”) and hawthorns. They have a feature in common with persimmons, though: the fruit isn’t ready to eat until it’s been hit hard by frost, or has been allowed to soften—“bletted”—in cool storage. For medlars, a pile of moist sawdust or bran in the cellar is classic. Some people eat the finished product by poking a hole in the skin and sucking out the pulp.  

I’m disposed to like this idea, as I love soft Hachiya persimmons. But when people from Chaucer to Shakespeare keep calling medlars “rotten,” and D.H. Lawrence goes on about “… autumnal excrementa” and “… an exquisite odour of leave taking,” I find the idea less appealing somehow.  

Then again, I do like durian. A controversial fruit with a custardy texture might be right up my alley. Unfortunately, the single pome I was bold enough to ask for got lost in the shuffle when I brought it to Stew Winchester’s taxonomy class for show-and-tell. Stew himself was less than impressed, telling me that he’s used to bigger medlars. Hmph.  

But I never got to take it home and stash it under the bed until it got wrinkly and edible, or, more likely, forgotten until it was moldy. So I still don’t know what it tastes like, and the usual descriptions don’t help much. 

Stew’s larger fruit likely came from medlar scions grafted onto some related rootstock; reputedly, Crataegus, i.e. whitethorn or hawthorn, stock yields the biggest fruit. If the little tree I met was grafted, I’m not sure what its roots are; it’s multistemmed and not much more than a shrub. 

The Victorians supposedly relished medlars, but they were typically fond of odd fiddly things. Think of all those ferns and Gondwanalandish araucarias. Think of the silverware.  

Medieval Europeans liked them because they were among the few fruits available in winter. I wonder if their edibility was discovered by someone who thought she was storing ugly apples and never got around to throwing them all onto the compost after biting into a few.  

If you want one, nag your local nursery or ask the California Rare Fruit Growers. Their local scion exchange happens Saturday, January 19, noon to 3 p.m at the UCSF Mission Center, 1855 Folsom St., San Francisco. See the Golden Gate Chapter page of http://www.crfg for details. 

Here’s an oddity: a new species—not variety; whole species—of medlar, Mespilus canescens, was discovered in 1990 in the flat eastern third of Arkansas. It’s the only other species in the genus. There are about 25 individuals in the “wild,” that is, in the 22-acre conservation easement on private land. They’re reluctant to reproduce on their own, though they flower and bear shiny red fruit. Some suspect it’s of hybrid origin; unlike animals, plants have been known to speciate that way.  

Whatever’s happening, conservationists are grafting the new medlar onto Crataegus wood with some success. We don’t know what’s we’re messing with, so save all the parts! 


Photograph by Ron Sullivan 

Medlar fruit and leaves. These, about poolball-sized, are apparently some puny medlars. 


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Green Neighbors” column appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet, alternating with Joe Eaton’s “Wild Neighbors” column. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section.