Posted by: Glow-worm PJ13 JUN 2012
The common medlar (Mespilus germanica) is a fruiting tree native to Asia Minor and south-east Europe. The specific name “germanica” derives from the fact that the Romans introduced it to Germany, from where it became naturalised throughout Europe. The white flowers are followed by greenish-brown fruits, which cling to the branches well into November, long after most other autumn fruits have fallen.
The fruits do not ripen on the tree, and have to be made palatable by a process known as bletting. They are harvested in late October and stored in straw for several weeks until they appear to be rotting. Bletting causes an increase in the fruit’s sugar content and a reduction in acids and tannins, which make the fruit astringent. When bletting is complete, the flesh is soft enough to be spooned from the skin and eaten. It is often used to make jellies and tarts.
Medlar was a familiar orchard fruit in the Middle Ages, but is nowadays almost unknown in Britain. Shakespeare alluded to the bletting process in Measure for Measure when Lucio, referring to “a wench he got with child”, wrote “they would have married me to the rotten medlar”. And there is an old saying, used in ‘Don Quixote’, that “time and straw make a medlar ripe”.
Medlars had various uses in medieval folk medicine, especially as a treatment for diarrhoea and as a diuretic.
Recent research has been carried out in Turkey and Iran, where the medlar is widespread, into the antioxidant properties of various parts of the plant. Bark and leaf extracts were found to contain phenolic acids and flavonoids, compounds that mop up potentially harmful reactive oxygen species from within cells. These compounds are present in the fruits, but to a lesser extent.
Reactive oxygen species are known to play an important role in the initiation and progression of a number of disease states, including atherosclerosis, cancer and cardiovascular disease, and it is hoped that the medlar may provide a source of affordable dietary supplement in these traditionally poor areas.