The azarole is a fruit tree typical of our rural tradition. Its small, bittersweet fruits are called azeroles and closely resemble miniature apples. We have already talked about fruit trees such as jujube, strawberry tree, mulberry, all species deeply rooted in the farming experience, yet often overlooked and underestimated in today’s fruit species panorama. The azarole also belongs to this particular category that should be reevaluated, especially within the context of family orchard cultivation. Even just one of these trees, with its valuable ornamental value, can yield an excellent harvest.
Let’s delve into the botanical characteristics of the azarole, its cultivation requirements, and the potential uses of its fruits.
Azarole: Origin and Distribution
The azarole (Crataegus azarolus) is a fruit plant belonging to the botanical family Rosaceae, categorized among the minor pomaceous fruits. The plant’s area of origin is Asia Minor and Central Asia, although some ecotypes are native to Mediterranean countries. In many Italian regions, the azarole plant is found growing wild, especially in Liguria, Emilia Romagna, Veneto, Tuscany, Lazio, Molise, Campania, Apulia, and Sicily. Cultivated azarole has a centuries-old tradition in our country, chosen for both its fruits and ornamental purposes. As far back as the Renaissance, azaroles were highly appreciated for their unique aroma and distinctive sweet-tart flavor. Furthermore, until the last century, they were subjects of a thriving trade. Unfortunately, in recent decades, this tradition has been fading, and specialized cultivation is now very rare. It’s a very rustic and adaptable crop, bearing abundant fruit, making it ideal for planting in family orchards. The most common cultivated varieties in Italy are the White Italian Azarole (more delicate) and the Red Italian Azarole (more robust).
Botanical Characteristics of Azarole
The azarole is a plant that can take the form of a small tree or a bushy shrub. It grows slowly and never reaches large dimensions. In favorable conditions, it can reach a maximum height of 8 to 10 meters. The tree’s canopy has a rounded shape, sometimes pyramidal, with more or less downy branches and sporadic thorns.
The leaves are deciduous, alternate on the branches, leathery, have a short petiole, and are equipped with stipules. In fruit-bearing branches, the leaf blade is rounded at the base, lobed, with 1-3 pairs of lobes depending on the variety.
The upper surface of the leaf is smooth, shiny, with a bright green color. The lower surface is duller and tends towards pale grayish-green. The flowers are white, with a short peduncle, arranged in corymbs, varying in number from 5 to 25.
Azarole’s flowering is beautiful, occurring in early spring and persisting until May. Fruit-bearing happens at the tips of the year’s growth, generated from a mixed bud. After harvest, the tip dries, while simultaneously a lateral bud forms, ensuring growth in the following year. As mentioned earlier, the fruits are the azaroles, small spherical-shaped pomes.
They have a diameter of 2-2.7 cm and contain 2 or 3 seeds covered by thick, woody teguments. The skin’s color, depending on the variety, ranges from pale yellow to intense yellow, orange-red, or deep red. They mature from late August and last until early October. Another characteristic of the fruits is their good storability.
Soil and Climate Requirements
Usually, azarole is a thermophilic plant, which is why it grows on hilly slopes, which generally have good sun exposure and a milder climate. Azarole grows well in the same climatic range as the holly oak and holm oak. This rustic, adaptable fruit tree thrives in well-drained, not overly compact soils, including clay or limestone soils, as long as they don’t cause waterlogging.
The tolerated soil pH ranges from 6.8 to 8.5, which means from neutral to slightly alkaline. These are the ideal conditions, but its hardiness guarantees growth even in more challenging situations. The plant possesses high resistance to water deficiency and at the same time withstands winter frosts, surviving temperatures below -15 °C.
Azarole can be propagated from both seeds and rootstocks. However, starting cultivation from seeds is discouraged since growth is very slow, and fruit production doesn’t occur until after 10 years of age. Usually, azarole is propagated through grafting, primarily using hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), which has excellent graft compatibility and encourages early fruiting. In nurseries specializing in ancient fruit varieties, you can find ready-to-plant trees guaranteed to be disease-free.
For the planting period and techniques for azarole, we recommend reading our article on how to plant a fruit tree. In short, the planting spacing is 4 meters between each tree.
Artificial irrigation is usually unnecessary for azarole cultivation. During the first year after planting, it’s important to monitor for prolonged drought periods and intervene to promote initial root establishment if necessary. Fertilization should be mild. It can be done in autumn by burying near the trunk either home compost or worm castings (which you can find here).
One common cultural practice is autumnal pruning, which promotes fruiting in the following year. This technique is applied to mixed branches, the year’s growth that presents both wood buds and, at their tips, fruit buds. Pruning stimulates the formation of additional fruit buds. Regarding regular pruning interventions, general rules can be followed, aiming primarily to maintain a harmonious shape and eliminate old or diseased parts of the tree.
Harvest and Use of Fruits
The azarole is a truly multi-functional tree species. It produces excellent fruits with medicinal properties and is also a tree of high ornamental value. It’s perfect as a decorative plant in the garden, to be admired from spring to autumn, from the flowering phase to the fruit-bearing phase. As a fruit tree, a single isolated specimen is sufficient, given its abundant production. The fruits can be consumed fresh, right after harvesting, but they can also be stored in a dark and dry place for winter use. Fresh azaroles are refreshing and possess various properties. They are diuretic and hypotensive, and their pulp is both anti-anemic and ophthalmic due to the high content of provitamin A.
Azaroles are an excellent ingredient for traditional farm recipes, such as preserves, jams, and jellies. They are also used in pastry making and preserved in spirits.