Most gardeners seem more familiar with flowering quince shrubs (Chaenomeles spp.) than with the quince fruit tree (Cydonia oblonga). After all, the latter makes pomes which reportedly are as hard, bitter, and dumpy as Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters. So why bother growing it?
Actually, although quince fruits may not be highly attractive up close, they glow enticingly gold in autumn when nestled among the tree’s lushly large leaves. Those leaves can reach up to 5 inches in length and flash a woolly underside.
Also, quince’s 2 1/2-inch, pink-tinged, self-pollinating spring flowers are among the prettiest of fruit blossoms. Judging from what I’ve read, the tree quickly takes on a gnarled appearance as well, which lends it fairy tale appeal in USDA zones 5 through 8 or 9.
The fruits from my common quince--charmingly fuzzy when young--grow to resemble oversized and lumpy pears, but with hard shells instead of pears’ soft skin. Each is about 4 to 5 inches long at maturity and about 4 inches in diameter with a floral scent. My father remembers those from his childhood being smaller, so the size of mine could be due to the fact that my young tree doesn’t produce a large number of them at a time yet. (Mature common quince trees generally don’t surpass 15 feet, but cultivars can grow taller.)
Because quinces originated in Persia--a drier climate than Pennsylvania!--the fruits tend to crack here about the same time that they ripen to bright yellow. They generally begin falling from the tree in mid-October, at which time it is important that I use them before I lose them, because rot sets in quickly.
Although they were more common in his youth than mine, my dad doesn’t remember quinces fondly. They are tough to cut open and peel, and definitely have an astringent flavor when grown in our Zone 5. (In warmer, dryer climates, they reportedly can be sweeter.) In the good old days, they were one of the best sources of pectin, so they frequently were used to "set" other fruits in jams and jellies.
I’m one of those strange people who prefers the taste of sour apples to sweet ones, so I can eat raw quince without wincing—and actually enjoy it! To me, its tart tang resembles that of a cooking apple with something floral added. The fruits taste even better if they are sliced and poached in sugary syrup. They blush a rosy flesh color after short cooking, which deepens to coral and eventually to red if they are stewed longer.
Quince trees prefer fertile, somewhat acidic, well-drained soil in full sun. Partial shade seems to work as well, since mine receives sun only in the afternoon.
I grew it from seed, but I don’t recommend that course unless you have plenty of patience, as the seedling will take many years to produce fruit. I think it was about seven years in my case, but can’t swear to that.
According to my records, my seedling germinated in 40 days, but I failed to retain any other details of how I started it. If you want to try, I would recommend that you use seeds no older than 8 months and soak them in water overnight first. Then enclose them in damp paper towels or peat moss, inside a sandwich bag, and keep them warm for a couple weeks. Finally, place the bag in the refrigerator until the seeds begin to crack open.
I have to confess that I Photoshopped out some of the blemishes on the fruits pictured in this article. Quinces seldom make it to maturity blemish free. However, in my book, perfect fruits are never as magical as the more interesting flawed ones which almost everybody overlooks!
Photos: The photos in the article are my own. The antique image is from the 1887 Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, now in the public domain.