Reconsidering Quince

A closeup of the beautiful blossoms of fruiting quince. Photo by Anita Bracalente

Last year I talked some friends of mine into taking out an old quince bush that was filling up a large amount of prime real estate in their relatively small backyard. It had matured into its quintessential quinceness: a very broad entanglement of twigs throwing out an early spring display of flowers and satisfied to do nothing for the rest of the 55 weeks of the year.

After some deliberation, my friends agreed that it should go. After all, there are many specimens that could sport far more landscape quality and value for as many as four seasons of the year. Four weekends later,my friends were still excavating a canyon in their backyard. The hole was 4-½ feet deep and 6 feet wide. The old entangled roots were themselves entwined amongst the roots of an old ash tree that had been removed that previous spring. Fearing that this despicable specimen should rise again from these old roots,my friends assiduously combed the earth in their excavated hole with a bonsai rake and shovel. I kid you not, they were at it for sixteen hours or more sitting on their behinds in this enormous crater scraping away quince root hairs from the earth. Hey, that wasn’t exactly my methodology for removal.

We had an old quince bush ourselves. The problem with this shrub is that it happily gets out of hand sending up suckers in every direction, zapping the strength out of the parent plant if it is not kept in murderous check. Soon one has few flowers, no fruit and an unwieldy mass that offers little value. The other gardener on the premises did prune ruthlessly until the shrub performed with a multitude of flower and even some fruit, but in the end, it was in the way of other landscape plans.

Now why, would I turn around and extol the virtues of quince bushes? (Tee hee!) I will pre-empt, before my friends come after me with a real pitch fork—not just any kind of quince bush and not for just any yard.

There are a few quince bushes that could happily provide great interest to a small yard. Chaenomeles speciosa “Contorted”might just fit the bill. There are several varieties of this twisted specimen most prized for bonsai, which is why we have one sitting in a bonsai-in-waiting pot. The contorted branching structure gives winter interest with white flowers in the spring. Another variety has pink flowers. Even so one must prune the suckers away. It is of small stature—to around two feet—and it would make an excellent specimen in the rock garden or along a stone retaining wall. There are other small specimens useful for bonsai and small yards. Chaenomeles Puamea has very tiny leaves and could be used at the front of a mixed border. Planted with small species tulips the two could bloom at the same time roughly late March. Another favorite bonsai specimen that can be used for the yard is Chaenomeles “Ken Toyo” with smallish white, pink and red flowers blooming simultaneously. A large shrub to seven feet, C. Toyo “Nishiki” will sport all three colors simultaneously and also bear fragrant fruits that ripen in late summer if you have room for a pair.

My real enthusiasm is not for these shrubby forms of quince, but for the fruiting quince trees. Once common in the United States every small farm or backyard orchard had quince. The quince was used to make jelly and added into apple cider. A friend of mine had brought me a bar of quince fruit cheese, which she purchased in a Middle Eastern market. The flavor is tart and sweet with a deep aromatic flavor, the variety I had was somewhere between a perfectly ripened pear and pineapple. While in France during the harvest this last fall, quince was widely available in the fruit markets.

Only one tree is needed for fertilization. Cydonia oblonga is the Latin name for the fruiting quince trees and they grow in all kinds of soil, although sticky clay with poor drainage would not be suitable. Not bothered by pests particularly, the trees flower late in the spring which is a good assurance against our iffy spring freezes. The large yellow fruits ripen from September through October. Some will only come to ripen on the windowsill so they store well.

C. Aromatnaya is from the Black Sea region and is new this year in the United States. It is pear shaped with a taste of pineapple and can be eaten fresh. It will ripen on the windowsill once picked in October. C. Havran is a traditional Turkish variety with white flesh and ripens in September. Both C. Aromatnaya and C. Havran are naturally sweeter than any North American varieties. C. Ekmek is another Turkish variety that has a creamy yellow flesh that is very juicy. It also ripens in September.

My quince cheese was a lovely rosy amber color although some quince turn pink to deep crimson when cooked. C. Portugal is such a fruit from Europe that stews well. I have an excellent recipe for Quince Cheese from the cookbook, Preserving by Oded Schwartz, Dorling Kindersley, Limited, London, 1996, but I don’t have a ready source for the fruit. I would like to inspire those with an edible landscape and orchardists to start growing themas I am sure it has market potential once tasted. Any of our Eastern European or Middle Eastern friends would agree!

Anita Bracalente is a garden designer, writer and lecturer with Jackson & Fourth Garden Design. She can be reached at 812.332.6042.

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