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On Medlars and Shakespeare

Posted Nov 21 2008 3:08pm

At the end of last October I posted aboutthe medlar treeoutside the balcony which was then in flower and full of swarms of bees - so the bees were certainly around before the winter, despite what I said in the postOn Beesthe other day. Anyway, the tree is now full of ripe fruit, much to the delight of the local birds who are doing their best to get to it before we do.

I've realised that the name medlar may have been misleading. It's actually a Japanese medlar, or loquat (Eriobotrya japonica), which is a different genus from what is normally meant by medlar (Mespilus) though both are from the same subfamily maloideae - which also includes fruits like apples and pears.

Loquats ( nespole in Italian) are quite popular here - lots of people grow them and you can buy them in greengrocers and supermarkets. I've never seen them in Britain and maybe the climate's not suitable for the tree. But even the other type of medlar seems to have gone out of fashion in the UK. Till I came here I had only ever heard of it through Shakespeare's plays. I don't actually like the loquat fruit much, and it seems that Shakespeare didn't like the type of medlar he was familiar with either, as all the references are derogatory. His description of the fruit in As You Like It is just as true of the loquat as of other medlars - Touchstone has been reading some dreadful poetry written for Rosalind by Orlando and says ...

Touchstone : This is the very false gallop of verses: why do you infect yourself with them?
Rosalind : Peace! you dull fool: I found them on a tree.
Touchstone : Truly, the tree yields bad fruit.
Rosalind : I’ll graff it with you, and then I shall graff it with a medlar: then it will be the earliest fruit i’ the country; for you’ll be rotten ere you be half ripe, and that’s the right virtue of the medlar.

When they're not ripe, loquats are very sharp - but they then turn brown and rotten very quickly. So you tend to bite into them and find acid on one side and gunge on the other.

But the tree is beautiful, with broad glossy leaves which are light green when they're young and turn dark green as they get older. Ours is right outside the kitchen and I often stand on the balcony with a glass of wine in the evening while dinner is cooking, just looking at it.
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