When it comes to Shakespeare and love the play that springs to mid for most people is "Romeo and Juliet", and the many people would recognise and understand the following lines:
However, Shakespeare also makes use of other botanical comparisons in the play which are not so clear:
What on earth is Mercutio talking about? Obviously there is more then a wiff of sexual euphemism about these lines, the long tapering poperin pear is bardly slang for penis but "medlar""isn't such a well know fruit now so the reference isn't as clear for modern readers. A "medlar" is both the name of the tree and the fruit it bears, botanically known as Mespilus germanica. They are part of the Maloideae (apple) subfamily of the rose family Rosaceae and are therefore related to apples, pears and quinces. In appearance the fruit is rather small, dull and brown, although the tree it self is very attractive with dark glossy leaves with silvered undersides and large shining white five petaled flowers in the spring.
Above: Quince fruit and the much smaller Medlar for comparison.Due to the appearance of the fruit with it's retained sepals and hollow crowned appearance it has been used as euphemistically by the English historically to refer to the anus ("open-arse") or less commonly female genitalia ("open tail") , in much the same way the Italians still refer to the fruit of the fig tree. Unlike the fruit of the fig tree, any resemblance to female genitalia would take a combination poor eye site and considerable wishful thinking. The French are perhaps closer in their phrase "cul de chien" and Shakespeare does seem to be taking some anatomical licence with the meaning he has given. The following 18th century definition of the medlar fruit gives the more usual description of the fruit.
"A fruit, vulgarly called an open arse; of which it is more truly than delicately said, that it is never ripe till it is as rotten as a turd, and then it is not worth a fart."This description also gives an indication of the other unusual property of the medlar, the fact that it is inedible until it has begun to rot. This process called "bletting" can occur while the fruit is attached to the tree after frost, or can be achieved by picking the ripe fruit and storing them in a cool dry place. Either way the hard cream flesh breaks down into a soft brown pulp. It is this pulp that is consumed in on form or another. Common ways to eat this fruit pulp is simply sweetened (or not) with port, made into jellys, "cheese "and creams.
Above: partially bletted medlar fruit cut in half to show the normal white and broken down brown pulp.Although the medlar is no longer a common or even well recognised fruit, my parents have a medlar tree in their orchard and this year I was lucky enough to get enough fruit to make into a jelly. The jelly is made in exactly the same manner as quince jelly, briefly the fruit is roughly chopped and covered with water, it is then simmered for three hours, then liquid is them filtered through a cheesecloth overnight, equal amount of sugar is added and the jelly is simmered until it gels. The resulting jelly is a lovely garnet colour, but the real pleasure of the jelly is it's flavour and aroma. Simply stated no other fruit comes close to approaching the depth and complexity of flavour. Event he quince which is considered by many to produce the most exotic, ethreal and delicious of conserves, pales in comparison. The initial flavour on the palate is very similar to quince jelly, powerfully aromatic, even spice like, but never over-powering or cloying, but in addition to this the medlar jelly has a woody, earthy, leaf litter aroma which sounds revolting, but is in fact delicious. Most people will not have access to medlar fruit, but it is possible to by medlar jelly from Wilkin & sons, Tiptree in England. While the jelly could be used to accompany lamb or game (in a similar manner that rowan berry, cranberry and red currant jellies are used), it crys out to be slathered on a slice of tangy sour-dough toast or eaten with fermented yeast pancakes, especially the clotted cream ("Ashtah") stuffed Lebanese Atayef pancakes.
Above: My medlar jelly.