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Once ubiquitous and widely valued for its medicinal powers, the medlar has been neglected for more than a century as it calls for patience and cannot be mass-marketed. So take advantage of this ambrosial amber-coloured fruit wherever you find it – in street markets, in country gardens or in the wild. Text and photographs: Berrin Torolsan
You could scarcely choose a prettier small tree for the garden,” wrote Christopher Lloyd, creator of the legendary garden at Great Dixter, in his book Gardener Cook. “Its culinary properties might not be a primary reason for wanting one, but it has many other charms. The spreading habit, with branches down to the ground, and the characteristic scaly-barked trunk. Large white flowers are borne, singly in May.
In autumn, the leaves never fail to colour to a warm orange-brown, and the fruits, which ripen after leaf fall, are amazingly individual.” The tree he refers to is the modest medlar.
Medlars belong to the large Rosaceae family. Their attractive five-petalled, rose-like blooms come out after the leaves of the tree have developed fully in late spring; the single white blooms, which will become a fruit in autumn, look extremely pretty against the dark green foliage. Little wonder that the medlar flower became the heraldic Geldernische Rose of the Dukes of Guelders in Germany – like the roses of York and Lancaster in Tudor England.
The tree has been popular since very ancient times, admired by the Hittites, around 1600 BC, and the ancient Greeks.
So familiar was the medlar that the geographer and historian Strabo, who was born in Amasya in northern Anatolia in 64BC, used the mespilon, as he called the medlar in his Geographica, as a point of comparison when assessing the size of gold nuggets in Ethiopia (they were smaller than walnuts, he noted). In the first century AD, the pharmacologist and botanist Dioscorides
of Anazarba (near modern Adana) listed
the medlar among the medicinal plants he used in De Materia Medica, describing
it as “like an apple tree” with “a round edible fruit which ripens slowly and has binding qualities”. Pliny the Elder, in AD7, refers to three varieties in his encyclopaedic Natural History, telling us how they differ in size and flavour. He notes that the
leaves turn red before they fall and the tree has very deep roots, which makes it impossible to transplant. The tree adorned the gardens of every Roman villa and was possibly introduced to northern Europe by the Romans.
Besides being a pretty tree, its fruit has powerful anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, which have proved an effective remedy for all kinds of illnesses. An astringent, it helps to stop diarrhoea, and a tisane made with the leaves is believed to stop bleeding. The bark has been used to cure malaria and the pips to eliminate kidney stones. Besides its healing properties, it is rich in nutritional elements including vitamins.
Thanks to its numerous medicinal virtues, this superdrug went on to be treasured in mediaeval times. The medlar was mentioned in 820 in the list of plants for the gardens of the recently founded Abbey of Saint Gall in what is now the Swiss city of St Gallen. Many trees were planted in the monastic gardens of France and Germany that would have been invaluable to apothecaries.
During the Middle Ages and into the
16th century, so many medlars had been planted in Germany that the 18th-century Swedish botanist Linnaeus, the father of plant taxonomy, was convinced that the tree had originated in Teutonic lands and so named it Mespilus germanica in his book Species Plantarum, in 1753. The Polish botanist Kazimierz Browicz concluded in 1972 that the homeland of the medlar ranged in fact from the southeastern parts of the Balkan peninsula across Anatolia to the Caucasus, Crimea, and possibly further east.
Browicz could have turned for evidence to the 17th-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi’s monumental ten-volume Seyyahatname (Book of Travels).…
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To celebrate our 60th issue we take a grand tour of Istanbul’s treasures – firm favourites and well-kept secrets, the tried and tested and the weird and wonderful, venerable institutions and cutting-edge arts spaces.
An exhibition at the British Museum draws on the wealth of art and literature inspired over centuries by the romance and mystery of Trojan history and mythology, Barnaby Rogerson is beguilded
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