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Medlar & French Honeysuckle

Do you know the fruit medlar and the herbaceous perennial French honeysuckle (sulla)?
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

November 19, 2006

Above, shots of both the flower (with foliage) and fruit of medlar (Mespilus germanica) cour-tesy of, respectively, Keele University Arboretum in North Staffordshire, U.K. and Aaron_UK from central Lon-don. Below, French honeysuckle or sulla (Hedysarum coronarium) both courtesy of Dr. Brian Dear of New South Wales Agriculture in Wagga Wagga, Australia.

Judith French, who lives in Nanaimo, wrote on Monday with two very interesting questions; herewith: “This is going to be a very Italian based email. First of all, I have been able to sprout a medlar from the pit. At the moment I have it in a pot on my windowsill and it is about 6 inches tall with two stems. Where do I go from here?

“Secondly, we had some honey whilst in Italy from the sulla flower. I have got as far as tracking this down to Hedysarum coronarium L, or Italian sainfoin {healthy hay} and French honeysuckle. Obviously it isn’t a true honey-suckle which is Lonicera? Do we have this plant in Canada? Thank you so much for your help in these matters.”

Well Judith, there are many who have not heard of the fruit known as medlar. It somewhat resembles an apple in shape but is flat on the bottom, with somewhat protruding flower parts. It is usually considered a small, deciduous tree (but can reach 7 m/25’ in height) of the family Rosaceae. It is closely related to pear (Pyrus) and hawthorn (Crataegus). Medlars have been cultivated since ancient times for their edible fruit which, as Alfred Rehder (inter-nationally famous botanical author) so delicately describes, "after incipient decay becomes soft and of agreeable acid taste." This after-ripening, known as bletting, is similar to the ripening process of American persimmon. Bletted fruit has flesh with the consistency and taste of apple butter. The medlar tree blooms and bears fruit when very young. Often a newly grafted scion will produce flowers and fruit the year it is grafted. Medlars have been grown on Crataegus, Cydonia, Malus, and Pyrus rootstocks, and may have potential as a dwarfing rootstock for apples or pears.

The varieties grown today, including Nottingham and Royal, have been grown for many centuries.

As Judith has done, seed is considered the best method of propagation, and it is suggested that it be sown as soon as it is ripe in late autumn in a cold frame. The seed has a very hard and impermeable seed coat and will not usually germinate until it has gone through two winters. A home gardener could try soaking the seed for 24 hours in warm water then cold stratifying it for 2 - 3 months at 1 - 5° C before sowing it. Alternatively, if you can harvest the seed green (as soon as it is mature but before the seed coat has dried and hardened), then sow it immediately in a cold frame and you might reduce the time needed for it to germinate. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the cold frame for their first winter. I guess that is the point at which Judith finds herself now. If she lacks a cold frame, in the Nanaimo climate, if they were planted near a house foundation, and once the real winter (if there is one) hits, cover them with leaves. They should then be planted into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts.

Most growers report they succeed in most soils, preferring one that is moist and well-drained. They prefer a sunny position and a fertile soil.

Now as to the French honeysuckle or Italian sainfoin (also known as sulla or sulla clover), it is an herbaceous perennial that grows 90 cm (3’) in height and a similar spread. Oddly enough it is closely related to the shrub Lespedeza which flowers over a long period from mid-summer to early fall, and I have just planted one in my garden here!

The name sainfoin is from French meaning "healthy hay" also Latin Sanum Foenum. In England it was sometimes wrongly called Sainte Foine and thence "holy hay". It was known that animals fed on sainfoin were healthier and put on weight more rapidly than they did with any other forage.

The plant features gray-green to medium green leaves, each with 7-15 elliptic to rounded leaflets making up the compound leaf. Extremely fragrant, bright red, pea-like flowers bloom in late spring to early summer in clusters somewhat like Veronica spp. and even Ricinis communis. Flowers are quite fragrant and attractive to bees. Many consider it a good fresh cut flower. The flowers eventually give way to non-ornamental yellowish seedpods that turn brown as they mature.

This plant is sometimes cultivated for hay and livestock fodder in parts of Europe and northern Africa. Various scientists have, as recently as 2002 (at the Annual Meeting of the New Zealand Society of Animal Production), given papers on the fact that Hedysarum coronarium reduces methane emissions from dairy cows! So, as you can tell, it may become a much more useful plant again as it once was in the older days of agriculture.

Growers say it is easily grown in average, medium wet, well-drained soils in full sun--apparently best in gritty, moderately fertile, alkaline soils. It also tolerates poor sandy or rocky soils and best performance generally occurs in cool summer climates such as the Pacific Northwest. Consider trimming back taller plants after flowering to shape, particularly in hot and humid summer climates. All of that said Judith in Nanaimo should have little trouble growing it, provided she corrects the highly acid soil she likely has. That is, if she can find the plant or the seeds (from which it grows easily)! The only nursery in Canada that I could find that may have it is Gardens North in North Gower (near Ottawa) Ontario (613-489-0065). They may also have the seed. In the U.S., Bluebird Nursery, P.O. Box 460, Clarkson, Nebraska 68629; 1-800-356-9164 may also carry plants or know who else does.

I did not check seed suppliers, but you could certainly do that on the Web.

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