The Ashridge Nurseries Blog

Ancient and unusual fruits


Unusual fruits - quince, fig and medlar

If you fancy leaving the beaten track of apples, plums
and the like, why not try growing some of these?

Have you already tried your hand at growing popular orchard and garden fruit trees like apple, pear, plum and cherry?

Has the thought already crossed your mind about growing something a little more peculiar. Something a bit more out of the ordinary, yet still a beautiful addition to the garden, and easy to care for?

If so, here's a few facts on three ancient fruits – the fig, the quince and the medlar.

Who knows, it just might give you a little encouragement to experiment!

The fig

The oldest cultivated crop is thought to be the fig. Indigenous to the Middle East and Asia it became an essential part of the Mediterranean diet more than 10,000 years ago.

The Romans brought the fig to Britain, and it was very popular with the Victorians. And there are many references to the tree in the bible – most notably, of course, as a covering to Adam and Eve's modesty in the Garden of Eden.

In the garden the fig, with its architectural foliage and tangled silver branches is a stunning specimen. Although it can be grown in open ground it lends itself to being fan trained against a south facing wall where it will receive maximum sunlight and heat, which helps the fruit ripen.

Fig roots are often restricted using rubble as this encourages better cropping. This means figs can be successfully grown in containers, making it suitable for gardens of all shapes and sizes.

Brown Turkey is the most reliable cropper grown in the UK. To obtain the best crops the tree requires a spring prune and some pinching out in summer. Container grown plants are root pruned every other spring and call for regular watering and feeding.

In particularly harsh winters they can be covered with horticultural fleece to prevent frost damage. Figs can be grown under glass and in the colder climes of Northern Britain it may be advisable if you desire a good crop of fully ripened fruit. With plenty of heat and TLC it should be possible to get three crops a year!

The fruits are delicious eaten fresh from the tree and make fantastic preserves.

The quince

The quince has endured waning popularity to have a huge resurgence of interest in more recent years.

It is known as a symbol of love, marriage and fertility and Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, was given this 'golden apple' by Paris. Native to the Middle East and Asia the quince first appeared in England in the rather grand surroundings of the Tower of London, where Edward 1 ordered some to be planted.

A compact tree with a contorted framework of gnarled branches, the quince is a superbly attractive addition to any garden. It has large downy leaves that turn a beautiful golden colour in autumn. The blossom has a gorgeous scent that on a spring day drifts around the garden. The golden fruits that follow are also deliciously scented and are harvested in autumn before they drop.

Meeches Prolific and Vranja are two of the best varieties to grow in the UK climate. Easy to grow and unhindered by any particular diseases, they require a moist soil in a warm, sheltered position. They are best grown as standards or bushes, with minimal pruning to remove dead or diseased wood.

Quinces make incredible jams and jellies, as well as a hard-set preserve called Membrillo, which is very popular in Spain. It's also used in Middle Eastern cookery in stews, and is very good roasted with game.

The medlar

Medlar, like the quince, has had a lengthy and eventful history and is enjoying a comeback. Native to Persia, it was cultivated by the Greeks and Romans from the second century BC. The fruit became very popular in Britain in the 17th century.

It is a perfect specimen tree for a small garden, with a compact cascading habit. The blossom in May is a glorious profusion of large white flowers, which are very attractive to bees. The intriguing fruits look somewhere between a russet apple and a rosehip. In autumn the foliage turns fantastic shades of golds and reds. When the leaves fall the twisted branches provide striking winter interest.

Nottingham is a prolific cropper and is one of the tastiest varieties. It is happiest in well-drained soil in a sunny sheltered spot. It can be planted into a lawn or grown in a large container. They are rarely bothered by any pests or diseases and only need pruning in their first few years to form a strong framework.

The fruits are usually picked under-ripe and stored until soft. This practice is known as 'bletting' and comes from the French 'blettir' – 'to make soft'. It was this that led the Medlar to be used metaphorically by the likes of Chaucer among others to represent fading beauty.

Once this process has taken place there are any number of uses for its sweet flesh, which has been described as apple-date. From jams and jellies to fillings for pies and crumbles its uses are endless and scrumptious!

Speaking of which, here is a medlar jelly recipe that you just might want to try!

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