This question springs to mind because I know someone who has a crab apple tree, probably ‘John Downie’, which, in their mind, is a quince tree. There really is no reason to make this mistake because there is little resemblance between a crab apple, which is an apple (malus) with clusters of small flowers in spring and, in this case, red-flushed fruits, and the true quince.
Quinces are a different genus (Cydonia) and the true quince is Cydonia oblonga. The quince is native to ‘western Asia’ including Iran and Afghanistan, Turkey and Armenia, often in dry areas and it tolerates warmer and drier climates than apples. It has long been known as a food and was a sacred emblem of Aphrodite. It is not often grown here or in the UK but is popular in southern Europe where it is made into jellies because of the high pectin content of the fruits. It is made into ‘mermelada’ in Portugal and ‘membrillo’ in Spain, eaten with cheese rather than spread on toast.
As a garden tree the quince has much to recommend it. It is a small tree with rather irregular branching. The leaves are generally larger than an apple, rounded, and rather grey or silvery beneath. The flowers are produced singly and are larger than an apple, pink in bud and white when open. They are produced latter than apples, when the leaves are expanded, and very pretty. Last year my tree opened flowers in cold weather but then produced a second flush which, because of the mild autumn, actually produced two fruits which just about ripened.
Quince fruits ripen late and are beautiful, rather like a rounded pear, with a greyish brown ‘fluff’ that often rubs off as the fruits ripen. They are a wonderful golden colour and have a sweet aroma unlike an apple. They are worth growing just to pick and keep in the fruit bowl to admire. They are not edible raw but the easiest way to use them is to grate some into stewed apple to give a special flavour.
Quinces generally need a bright, warm, sheltered spot, and well drained soil but the fact that mine has cropped is a good sign that they are adaptable. They can be prone to mildew in dry soil – I actually got rid of one in a previous garden because it suffered so much. There are several varieties that are commonly offered, including ‘Vranja’ and ‘Meeches Prolific’. Quince rootstocks are commonly used for pears and you may notice the different foliage coming from the base.
But quinces are not common in gardens, most people who have ‘quinces’ actually have Chaenomeles (Japanese quince), – above. These are rather small shrubs, usually with thorny stems, that are usually grown as wall shrubs, though this is not essential. The flowers are usually bright red but there are varieties with white, pink or salmon blooms. The flowers can be single or double and most produce edible fruits of variable quality. It is a popular ornamental because the flowers are produced in early spring, before the leaves, and it is easy to grow in sun or part shade. If you want fruits it is best to pick one of the older, bright red kinds such as C. speciosa and its variant ‘Moerloosii’ with pink and white flowers. Chaenomeles x superba is a hybrid of C. speciosa and C. japonica and contains most of the varieties including ‘Pink Lady’, ‘Crimson and Gold’ and good-fruiting ‘Boule de feu’.
I always think of this as an old-fashioned cottage garden shrub and it must have been popular as such because it is easy to grow, and often suckers, so could be passed from home to home. The bright flowers are welcome in spring and the fruits are aromatic and can be used just as quinces but without the need for a tree.
If I was pushed for space then a Japanese quince would be my choice. It is strange that I have not planted one yet but that is only because I have not yet found the ones that I like most: ‘Geisha Girl’ (double and salmon pink) and ‘Yukigoten’ (creamy, lime-tinged white that I used to have). I am sure that I will relent and plant one this spring, even if it is not what I really want. But if you have room, a true quince is a lovely small tree and I like the quirkiness of its irregular branching.
For some reason, whenever I pass mine I am reminded of:
I had a little nut tree,
Nothing would it bear,
But a silver nutmeg
And a golden pear;
The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree.
There is a lot of symbolism associated with this rhyme * but I always think of the sun-loving quince being the ‘golden pear’. And since none of my pear trees have yet to produce a solitary fruit, and my hazels have started to crop it seems appropriate. Now where is that silver nutmeg.
It may refer to the marriage between Catherine of Aragon (daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain) and Prince Arthur, the son and heir of King Henry VII of England, though there are many theories suggesting that ‘nut tree’ and silver nutmegs and golden pears have sexual connotations. Being a simple fool I am always reminded of the Infanta Maria Escalosa in Black Adder