We never know when the quince are ripe, or if they ever do get ripe. We barely notice them when they first show up as shiny green one-inch balls tight along a leafy branch. After they grow into yellow mini-cannonballs, we begin to count.
We wouldn’t make the grade in statistics, either. Our counts are casual and forgotten a moment later. When the counts seem to tally a minus, usually in early October, we look to the ground. And there they are. You’d think they’d be rotten, but they are hard as rocks, hence the designation yellow cannonball, though they come up a bit short on size.
That’s when I call my friend Candy and say, the quince are falling. Do you want to make your quince jam? This year is a bumper crop, but last year she had to add some wild pears or apples (they came from a roadside tree we never quite identified) to the quince fruit for volume. Her jam is clear with small bits and pieces of quince. It has a hint of apple to it, or is that pear? and it is delicious.
We’ve been growing quince for almost twenty-five years and we like them because they were one of the few plants that did not complain about the soil when we began gardening in clay. They shrug off long stretches of dry weather by dropping their leaves and pretending to be dead. More to the point, they do not actually die.
A visitor to our garden in August once asked why I didn’t pull out the dead bush with the tangle of twigs.
Wait until you see it in spring, I replied. Unless the winter is exceptionally cold, it blooms punctually on New Year’s Day here, sparse at first, then spectacularly from February to April. Timing is perfect, because that’s when the daffodils and forsythia are blooming. Quite a triumvirate. Since daffs don’t like moisture in summer, and the quince can tolerate dry spells, they are most compatible.
If the particular dead-looking quince in question were not planted at the junction of our driveway and a path to the house, people wouldn’t notice the sticks. Nor would they be threatened by a close encounter with spines.
Ouch! One of the first mistakes in the garden. Don’t plant a quince along a path. It’ll eventually reach out with daggers. No matter. We’ll never remove ours because it gives us such a lift in early spring. So we pay our dues with conscientious pruning once or twice a year to keep it from impaling us as we walk along the path or graffiti-ing our cars as we back out of the driveway.
We solved the matter of the dead sticks in August by allowing an errant Japanese honeysuckle vine to twine around them. Very nice. Don’t ask how we unwind the vine from the spines in fall. So far there have been no emergency trips to the hospital .
If our quince came with a plant label, we have long since lost it, so we just refer to it as ‘The Quince.’ I propagated it, so now it has a sister on the opposite side of the driveway.
No, this one won’t attack any person or vehicle. It’s guarded closely by Indian hawthorn and Japanese holly, but what a time we have scrambling around the jungle dodging spines when we pick up fallen fruit.
We grow other quinces that came with labels we didn’t lose. ‘Jet Trail,’ with glossy green leaves and shining white blooms, is one of these. Three feet high and wide, says the label. We all know labels never lie, so I planted it a few feet from the corner of the house. It stayed within bounds until it felt comfortable. Now it regularly tries to invade the upper story. It’s a tangle of twigs, of course, like all quinces, but one of our favorites. It never pretends to die, and it always seems to be smiling with blooms, and its tangled twigs create a haven for small birds.
Our bright red ‘Texas scarlet’ quince, pictured at the right, are spreaders that will grow to only three feet (maybe).
They are newcomers to the garden, surviving summers of drought and a tipsy friendship with ashy sunflowers that need a prop to stay vertical.
One of these days the quinces will grow big enough to straighten up the sunflowers.
The best fruits this year came from ‘Toyo-Nishiki,’ a quince whose lovely chameleon-like flowers deepen from white to soft pink to rose. We think that its good fruit set might be the result of hard pruning, transplanting, and the final insult, having a tree fall on it. This last is not recommended gardening practice, but it didn’t seem to do any harm. Maybe good soil helped, too.
For the record, these quinces are cultivars of Chaenomeles speciosa, or Common Floweringquince, originally from China, then cultivated by the Japanese and brought to the United States in the late 18th century. Chaenomeles is Greek for ‘split apple’ and speciosa means showy or splendid. This type of quince is not grown for its fruit, but it’s fun to try, and perhaps that is why we can never tell when they are ripe.
Quinces are hardy from zones 4 to 9, thrive in sun or part shade. They adapt to most any soil but seem to do best when treated nicely, maybe a little compost and water during dry spells.
Getting back to Candy and her fine quince jam, well, that’s a story for another post.