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Resilient like a medlar

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

By Francois Medion. This article was originally written for the 2014 spring issue of the Duluth Community Garden Program newsletter. I grew up a long way from northern Minnesota, in the southwest of France on a dairy and vineyard farm. Small farms were still the norm back then; farming had not yet turned industrial, consolidating all the small parcels into endless fields. The regional landscape was then defined by what is called bocage, fields and meadows surrounded by shrubby edges and rows of trees that we call hedgerows here. These green natural fences were of course a heaven for song birds, small critters such as hedgehogs and snails which you very well know French people love to turn into a delicacy. All this has indeed vanished for the sake of productivity and profit. What is lost is not just the wild life and beauty but also a diversity of plants, shrubs and trees, some of which like the animals have been almost

eradicated from that region. These plants provided a whole slew of priceless services besides beauty, wildlife habitat and their use as natural fences. They created micro climates by slowing down high winds, gave shade, reduced evaporation and mitigated floods. For the people they also provided fire wood and coppice for basketry but my favorite thing was in the spring to find among them field orchids, daffodils, and primroses and in the fall the cornucopia of berries, fruits and nuts from trees that had either been planted or encouraged to proliferate. To my heart, the most memorable among them were the juicy blackberries with their thorny brambles, the even thornier, if that can be, and super astringent prunelles (Prunus spinosa) and the one that in my mind has gained a mythic aura because of its near total disappearance from the fields and from my life, the medlar Mespilus germanica. Back then, this inconspicuous small tree and even more inconspicuous fruit hid itself in many of these hedgerows and we kept an eye on them waiting for the pomes to be ready for the picking. As much as the medlar tree and fruit are unassuming, its flowers have the delicacy of white roses to which family they belong. The fruit also knows how to keep its secrets, it has the outer color and fuzziness of a kiwi and it will reveal its inner ambrosia only if you are patient enough to wait for its hard flesh to blet and transform from a hard bitter astringent nugget into a creamy-caramely-apple butterthat you can suck from the papery brown skin for a surprisingly sweet treat. I always ate them as a snack straight off the trees after a frost transmuted them into delicacies. In areas and times were farms were not as richly endowed with fruit trees as ours, medlar fruits were truly loved, harvested still hard and stored in the granaries for the few weeks it took for them to blet. Then a few would be enjoyed as such and the rest transformed into jellies, made into tarts, and brewed into medlar wine. Today my heart jumps in delight knowing that I will be reconnecting with this old childhood friend who is coming all the way to northern Minnesota via the Northwood Nursery and the annual fruit tree sale fundraiser for the Duluth Community Garden Program. And I made sure that they will be a feature of the Duluth Grill Parking Lot Orchard where their small stature (6-8ft), zone 4 hardiness and tolerance of strong winds will make them ideal candidates. The medlars arent the only unusual fruit trees represented in this years selection for the garden program spring sale. The selecting committee Marian Syrjamaki-Kuchta an expert gardener and the grandmother of community gardening in Duluth, (Josh Horky a botanist par excellence and expert in alpine and bog flora and myself, the Duluth Grill gardener) decided that time has come to broaden the scope of whats offered in our Northland beyond blueberries, plums, sour cherries, apples and pears. Our selection all hardy for zones 3 or 4 will include along with the classics, hardy kiwis, apricots, honey berries, cornelian cherries, aronia, and indeed the medlars The rationale behind this decision goes beyond our love of the exotic and being the ones to offer a selection that no other garden center or nursery has. First as you might already know the great majority of the fruits and vegetables we consume, well over 90% by some estimates, have traveled astronomical distances before reaching our plate. As a consequence, the freshness of vegetables or the ripeness of fruits must be artificially propped. Of an even greater importance is the fact that stores have only the capacity to carry three days worth of produce at any time. If this unsustainable pipeline of cheap, unhealthy produce were to be severed, we

certainly would find ourselves in a difficult situation and we would be faced with the very limited selection of what we usually grow in our latitudes. Second, the ever shrinking diversity of our food choices despite overflowing grocery shelves is as dangerous to us as the mono-cropping of modern agriculture for the epidemic spread of plant pests and diseases and to the ruin of the environment. Recent research shows that the average American diet, all included from processed foods to herbal teas, to fresh fruits and vegetables, relies exclusively on a maximum of 30 plant species. When looking at the diet of tribesmen from the Kalahari or Ecuadors rainforest, their diet comprise 400 to 500 plant species and this is without even mentioning the great diversity of animal foods they also rely on. Even cultures that we think of as exclusively fish and meat eaters such as the Inuit were shown to consume up to 60 different species of plants. There is no doubt in my mind that despite the over abundance on the grocery shelves, the dearth of diversity of the plant foods that we consume has dire consequences for our health and the quality of our lives. The same scientists that are studying the diet diversity of different cultures are also comparing the diversity of our gut microbiome and finding that the two correlates. They surmise that there are links between the health, or lack thereof, of our gut microbiota and the increase in autoimmune diseases that we are witnessing. Time has come to ask for sovereignty over our food system; reclaim the self sufficiency of our grandparents, and build resiliency by embracing diversity in all its forms. Plant a medlar tree.

Francois Medion is an urban farmer, a forager and educator in Duluth Minnesota.

References: Mespilus germanica, medlar or common medlar Medlar. Plants for a Future Database Some of My Best Friends Are Germs. Michael Pollan, May 15, 2013. The New York Times Defining the Agricultural Landscape of the Western Lake Superior Region: Realities and potentials for a healthy local food system for healthy people. Stacey Stark, David Abazs and David Syring. June 30, 2010. Final Report.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.