October 2012


In  response to the Guess the Mystery Fruit on the facebook page

The medlar, Mespilus germanica, is a member of the rose family and is botanically somewhere between a pear and a Hawthorne. It is a small, deciduous tree of about 20 feet in height and width with a broad crown and heavy foliage although in New Mexico 10-12 feet is more usual. The branches may be contorted or very angular. It is hardy to USDA zone 4 to 9 and grows wild in temperate regions of Europe. It is reported to be indigenous to southwest Asia and southeastern Europe and was introduced to Germany by the Romans. It is said that Medlars were taken to North America by the Jesuits in the 1800s and introduced to South Africa in the 17th century.

The foliage is quite showy in the fall with yellow or red leaves. The fruit, if left on the tree creates winter interest. The leaves are 2 to 6 inches long and 1 to 1 1/2 inches wide, alternate, elliptic, dark green in the upper surface, “hairy” and grayish beneath. The leaf margin is entire, serrated at the apex. The trees dense foliage hides the branches. The solitary flowers appear at the tip of the growth of the year, depending on the location from late April to early June. The five petaled flowers are 1 to 2 inches wide, pinky white and look to me like something like a wild rose. Medlars are self-fertile and if pollination should not occur, the Medlar can set fruit parthenocarpically, that is, without any pollination whatsoever. Of course this bypasses late freeze problems.

The fruit is round, one to two inches in diameter looking somewhat like a brown, over-grown rose hip with a calyx on its crown. The fruit is open at the bottom exposing five seed boxes. Very similar in appearance to large hawthorne fruits

They can also be cooked into jellies and jams as they are high in pectin. “But it has long been regarded as a dessert fruit for connoisseurs. Prof. Saintsbury in his classic book on wines, “Notes on a Cellar”, declared that “the one fruit which seems to me to go best with all wine, from hock to sherry and from claret to port, is the Medlar – an admirable and distinguished thing in itself, and a worthy mate for the best of liquors”.

Francesca Greensack in her fascinating book “Forgotten Fruit” said, “the lingering, slightly sweet, slightly winey flavor makes the Medlar seem like a natural comfit”. She also mentioned “roasting them with butter and cloves as a traditional winter dessert” and recommends jelly made from them “as an accompaniment to game”.”[3]

Medlars like moist but well-drained soil, and full sun and adapt to soil fertility. Medlars can be grown from seed or grafted or budded onto pear, quince or hawthorn rootstock. There are about two dozen cultivars at the National Clonal Germplasm repository of the U.S. department of agriculture in Corvallis, Oregon and others growing wild in Europe. They are considered easy to grow but a bit difficult to start from seed. They work well as a potted “patio” tree if left outside and exposed to winter conditions. The tree fruits as early as three years, producing a good crop.

Medlars must be “bletted” before eating.  Bletting is the ripening process that must be undergone by a limited range of fleshy fruits. American persimmon is another and sometimes quince and “Sorbus” species. Some fruits are sweeter after bletting, others can only be eaten raw once bletted. The process is simple, wait for a hard frost and pick the fruit. At this point it is very astringent, hard and starchy, not really edible.  Then store in sawdust or straw somewhere cool for 3-4 weeks.  Now is where bletting occurs. Most fruits would spoil or decay and ferment.  Due to an enzymatic action medlars will convert the starches to sugars and soften the fruit while turning it to a dark brown pulp from whitish.  It also decreases the acids and  tannins that cause the astringency. How to tell when it is ready?  When the fruit is the consistency of  jello in a balloon. They can be eaten raw as described by spooning out the mushy pulp which hardly seems a workable idea due to the small size.  I suggest using the “vampire method” where you bite the skin and suck out the contents.  The flavor is like apple sauce or apple butter with cinnamon. Of course they can be used in baked goods or jellies, wines and all sorts of other items.

* Some of the above (the boring stuff) was plagiarized from Dave’ garden website with additions by the editor of this blog

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In the past we have focused on trying to grow figs by insulating them over the winter.  Our problem has been that while the plants live and even get bigger each year, the main trunks and branching freezes back to the ground. In the summer when warm enough, it regrows and develops figs.  Our season isn’t long enough to regrow all the plant, then set and also ripen a crop.  When the first freeze hits we are left with many green, quarter-size figs on the bushes.

This year we decided to change our approach. Instead of trying just to keep branches alive through the winter, thereby fruiting earlier in the season, we are going to try extending the length of the season.  Because our bushes are in a row, this easily lends itself to covering with a “low tunnel”.  A low tunnel , as opposed to the better known and walk-in “high tunnel” or “hoop house” is a miniature hoop structure about 3’-4’ tall that is covered with plastic, usually white instead of clear. This allows diffused sunlight to warm the interior, keeps off the wind and gives a small amount of insulated protection at night, while allowing the covered soil to radiate warmth. These were originally designed to set over a row of vegetable crops to get a jump on spring growth and also in fall to have a longer season.  Usually they have to be monitored during the day and opened if it gets too hot inside.  Since figs love the heat and will mature quicker, we are planning to keep it totally closed.

All hoops in place

 

Checking the weather Friday showed that we were due for our first freeze Saturday night. We needed to work quick to have a chance saving this year’s crop!  Luckily we had the materials we needed already on hand and Saturday morning we got to it.  Our first step was to pound 2’ lengths of rebar into the ground every 3’ or so, in two rows.  One row on each side of the bushes.  The next step was to take 8’ lengths of PVC pipe, bend and place over the rebar, one side to the other.  These are our ”hoops” or “ribs” and are an arch of approximately equal width and height.

Tying the hoops together

Next we took some poly twine and with Russell’s Boy Scout knot tying skills we tied each hoop to the next using a single piece of the twine.  This stops any independent movement of the hoops and makes the whole structure much more rigid.  That was the easy part and took two people about 1 hour to complete for an approximate 30’ length.

 

The next step is where we varied from normal hoop structure.  We had some Agribon-19 floating row cover that was on a huge roll I got for the vegetable garden.   Row cover is made from white premium grade spun-bond polyester and has “pores” large enough to let in 85% of the sunlight, water and air, but small enough to keep out insect pests.  A single layer gives 3-4 degrees of insulation or cold protection.  We opted to put on 2 layers hoping to get even better frost protection maybe down to 26.  Our weather forecasts show that upcoming freezes for the next 3 weeks should not drop this low, but who trusts the weathermen?  After applying the row cover we clipped it at the ends only to hold it on while we did the next layer.  The clips are about 3” long aluminum and like a pipe slit down the side.  They are made to go over ¾” pvc and hold thin plastic.  What a life saver these little gadgets have been!

Lastly we were ready to cover the unit with plastic.  We used clear plastic since we want as much solar gain inside as possible and also because the row cover will diffuse any direct glare.  A ten foot wide piece was selected leaving a foot extra on each side when covered.  Then we took some 16 foot long 2” x 4” ‘s and rolled the bottom plastic on them. Once rolled, we used a staple gun to secure the plastic to the boards.   At the ends we just gathered and bunched the extra film and tied it off with some twine. To look inside all we need do is lift a side towards the middle or open an end up.

We will see if we can extend the season long enough, but probably the middle of November is all we will get.  After the plants go dormant we will bend them down, cover with straw and keep the cover on it.  Keeping wind off, combined with some daytime warming way keep the plants branches from total freeze off. Regardless we should also get a jump on the growing season in the spring and maybe an artificial  “early” spring combined with a ”late” fall would be long enough to mature the fruit even if we have to regrow the branches and stems.