Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

Over the past couple of Garden Gossip columns we’ve taken an in-depth look at a couple of unusual fruits that many gardeners wouldn’t think they could successfully grow in the north. There are still quite a few fruits to add to this list but it would take a very long time to give them all an individual column. Today we’ll continue with this topic but over the next couple of columns we may have to abbreviate some of the discussion in the interest of squeezing in as many as possible. Today’s fruit of choice, however, is worth a full and detailed look.

Cydonia oblonga, commonly known as quince, is a native of Asia but has the ability to add a whole new dimension to gardens as far north as zone 4. Generally growing as a small tree, quinces are producers of interesting fruit that appear almost like a cross between apples and pears, but larger.

Since the premise of this week’s column is to examine unusual fruit, let’s begin there. The fruit of the quince tree begins green and ripens to a deep rich golden colour that is reminiscent of a ripe pear. The overall appearance of the fruit is more like an elongated apple. Unlike apples and pears, however, quince fruits are not particularly palatable raw. The flavour is generally described as astringent, tart or sour. If allowed to become over-ripe and softened by frost and decay (a process known as bletting), raw quince fruits reportedly take on a much more pleasant flavour. The fruit of the quince tree is particularly high in pectin, especially when green. It is this characteristic that makes quince fruit ideal for jam and jelly making. Virtually all known uses of quince involve cooking and sweetening of some sort and apparently the fruit absolutely shines once given this treatment. Several regional alcoholic beverages are also brewed from quince including wines, brandies and liqueurs. Beyond the usual fruit applications, quince are also widely used in soups stews and all manner of meat-complementing situations. Interestingly, cooking quince in aluminum pots results in an extremely rich deep red colour.

The fruit of the quince tree has a deep historical significance as well. Many scholars suggest that the famed apple grown in the Garden of Eden was actually a quince. Since the quince is so much older than the apple and was naturally distributed in that part of the world, this suggestion does make sense. Quince fruits have a unique and highly aromatic fragrance and were traditionally used by new brides in ancient Greece as a breath sweetener.

Growing quince trees is fairly easy. Saplings are readily available from many plant supply companies and being self fertile, even a single tree will bear fruit for you. When buying a quince, be sure you are not purchasing a “flowering quince” which is a completely different, and purely ornamental plant. Quince trees are on the small side (about six metres) so do not require as much room to grow as larger trees. Any soil conditions that will grow apples should also suffice to grow healthy and happy quince trees. One real advantage that quince trees have over most other fruit trees is that they can tolerate wet feet. They aren’t at their best in these circumstances but they will still perform well.

Other than a few insects who enjoy quince leaves, the only real problem facing quince growers is blight. To date there don’t seem to be any blight resistant cultivars so constant monitoring and removal of any infected branches is critical.

As you would expect, quince fruit are high in vitamin C. They are also good sources of iron, copper, potassium, magnesium and much more. Historically quince were a significant fruit in folk remedies and current testing is suggesting that there are components of quince fruit that have good potential for medical applications. The seeds are mildly toxic and larger quantities can be dangerous. The astringency of raw quince fruit can cause occasional but temporary throat swelling.

Throughout recorded folklore and mythology there are frequent references to golden apples. Scholars generally agree that the quince is the golden apple of old. These golden apples have been associated with the best of outcomes, and with the worst.

“They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

which they ate with a runcible spoon;

and hand in hand on the edge of the sand

they danced by the light of the moon.

– The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear (1871)