Gardens: Meet the fruity medlar

Plant a medlar tree between now and March and in time you could be harvesting fragrant fruits to make jellies and liqueurs

 

I don’t grow medlars (Mespilus germanica), but last week’s sight of Airfield Gardens’ gnarly old tree, its twisting branches heavily laden with these strangely medieval-looking fruits, has made me long to do so. That, and the thought of making fragrant medlar jelly, the colour of garnets, to serve as an accompaniment to game, pork or lamb. Or roasted medlars, sweetened with a smear of honey. Or medlar liqueur, following food writer Jane Grigson’s recipe, using the ripe fruit soaked in sugar syrup mixed with brandy. Or even chocolate-coloured medlar cheese – actually more of a tartly fruity paste – poured into those tiny, exquisitely ornamental entrée moulds beloved of Victorian cooks, so that each one is decoratively shaped like a swan, a dove, a butterfly.

A small, deciduous, slow-growing hardy tree, the medlar has been in cultivation for several thousand years. Many writers, including Shakespeare, Chaucer, Saki, Cervantes and Colette mention it.

Once commonly found growing in old Irish kitchen gardens, it’s now something of a rarity. Which is odd, when you consider that not only is the medlar prolific in terms of its fruit , but it’s also undemanding to grow.

It doesn’t, for example, require a pollinating partner (it’s self-fertile), nor does it succumb to a variety of pests and diseases in the way that more commonly grown tree fruit (apples, pears, plums, for example) do. On top of that, the medlar’s pale spring blossom is impressively decorative, as are those strangely-shaped, russet-golden fruits, which should be harvested roundabout now, ideally after a sharp frost has allowed them to begin bletting – that lovely term used to describe the process by which the fruit starts to darken, soften and rot. Once harvested, place these on flat dishes, ‘eyes’ facing down, in a warm room for a few weeks, until the skin has browned and wrinkled, and the flesh has softened to a gentle, fragrant mush that has been described as a state of “incipient decay”. At this point, the fruit can either be eaten raw, or used as mentioned above.

The best time to plant a medlar tree is between now and March. As the thriving specimen growing in Airfield’s old walled garden proves, it does best in a deep, moist but well-drained soil, in full sun, with shelter from strong winds that might damage the spring blossom. Young trees always come grafted on a rootstock (typically the semi-dwarfing Quince A). Of the several different varieties available, among the best are ‘Royal’ and ‘Bredase Reus’.

Medlars aren’t the only forgotten or unusual fruit worth finding space for in your kitchen garden or allotment. Another is the Chilean Guava or strawberry myrtle (Myrtus ugni/ Ugni molinae), a compact evergreen, ornamental shrub (1m-2m x 1m) that’s native to South America.

A favourite of Queen Victoria, this plant has scented foliage and flowers, and produces deep-pink, aromatic, sherbert-flavoured berries that carry the fragrance of wild strawberries mixed with pineapple. You can use the fruit raw or cooked, in cakes, buns, jams, sauces, syrups, jellies, fruit salads, on cereals, or even to make a deliciously flavoursome pink gin.

It prefers a moist, acidic soil and needs a sheltered spot; in colder gardens, grow it against a sunny wall or in a large pot/container that can be given winter shelter in the form of an unheated glasshouse/ sunny porch. Just like the medlar, the Chilean Guava is self-fertile.

Another exquisitely flavoursome, and yet somehow half-forgotten fruit. is that of the slow-growing, stately mulberry tree (Morus nigra). Not unlike a large loganberry and yet with a taste all its own, mulberries need to be eaten or cooked within a few hours of being picked, which is the reason why the sweet, juicy, blood-red fruit is almost never seen for sale.

Best planted in spring, it, too, prefers a sunny sheltered spot and does best in a deep, fertile, moist but well-drained soil. Where space is tight, this self-fertile tree can be successfully grown as a lone container specimen (a large one), or trained against a sunny wall.

I’ve also seen it planted as a formal avenue in a large Irish country garden to great ornamental effect. Left unpruned, the tree will slowly reach a height and spread of eight metres by 10 metres.

Of the different varieties available, look out for ‘M. ‘Chelsea’ (also known as ‘King James’) and M. ‘Wellington’. You can use the delicious fruit to make jams, jellies, pies, sorbets, water-ices, ice-creams, and even a mulberry gin or wine.

Let’s also not forget the golden, pear-shaped quince, a characterful shrub with decorative, bee-friendly spring blossom and sweetly aromatic fruit. Properly known as Cydonia oblonga, this large, hardy, deciduous plant also needs a warm, sunny, sheltered spot, and a moist but well-drained soil, to fruit well. In colder areas, train it as a fan or espalier against a sunny wall. Among the best varieties are ‘Aromatnaya’, and ‘Vranja’. Harvest the fruit in October, before the first frosts, and bring indoors to fully ripen before using in pies, jams and jellies, or eating it pickled, or roasted. You can also use it to make a fruity, brandy-based liqueur, a winter tipple for those frosty nights ahead.

THIS WEEK IN THE GARDEN

Order unusual fruit trees/bushes (see main article). Recommended online suppliers include Mayo-based nursery Fruit & Nut (fruitandnut.ie), Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com) and Howbert & Mays (howbertandmays.ie)

Earth up or stake tall brassica crops (sprouting broccoli, Brussels sprouts, right) to protect their root-balls from being loosened by winter gales.

If you haven’t already done so, it’s also worth netting these crops to protect them against attack from hungry pigeons

Continue to tidy up flower borders, cutting back any blackened foliage of herbaceous plants.

Now is also a good time to take stock of the border, noting any obvious flaws, possible improvements and plants that will need to be divided, moved or replaced.

In milder gardens, prune bush and rambling roses (left). With bush varieties, cut out any dead, diseased, damaged or weak shoots before reducing the remaining amount of shoots by about a third (choose the oldest, thickest shoots to cut out). Reduce the length of the remaining shoots to between 15 and 30 centimetres.

With rambling roses, count the number of new shoots produced this year and then remove the equivalent number of oldest shoots. Shorten remaining old shoots as required, before loosely tying in new growth.

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