Mr Fluttergrub’s garden – Samhain ’23

Nov 1, 2023

Notes on growing quince

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.

For some reason any mention of quince always brings to mind the above few lines from Edward Lear’s nonsense poem The Owl and the Pussycat; Lear being a favourite of one of my, perhaps rather ‘spaced out’, teachers when at infant school. I’ve certainly been dining on quince over the last few weeks. This hasn’t provoked dancing by the light of the moon, nor has there been any mince (as I’m not a carnivore). The quince hasn’t needed to be sliced either as the crop has been so abundant there’s plenty for all kinds of uses, including processing into delicious quince jelly. Plus there’s so many giant fruits to sell and share! It’s worth celebrating 2023’s quince haul. A good crop isn’t guaranteed up here in Yorkshire. The last time we had such a bounty was five years ago after the warm and dry spring and summer of 2018.

To avoid any confusion, the quince crop I’m bragging about is from the tree quince or Cydonia oblonga to use its Latin name. It is not the shrubby Chaenomeles or Japanese quince frequently grown as an ornamental plant in gardens. Although most varieties of these do bear fruit it is, at least in my opinion, only semi-edible even when processed. The Cydonia quince is far superior having larger fruit and an altogether more attractive appearance with striking yellow skin and a generally pear like shape. Most of all, when very ripe, quince has an incredible fragrance, one powerful enough to scent a room if not a house. Having said this though, like its Japanese namesake, it needs cooking or processing. Most varieties are too astringent to eat raw.

I’ve two quince trees. The variety that’s excelled itself is Vranja. Now about 25 years old it isn’t in the most favourable situations being close to a large old pear tree that hogs most of the sun. Because of this I’ve recently planted another quince out on the field orchard. This is Serbian Gold, a variety I’m hoping will benefit from a more open aspect if, that is, it can stand the wind and the heavier soil. Quince takes quite a while to come into crop so it may be several more years before we see any Serbian Gold fruit.

There are two problems which cause quince to be an uncertain cropper, especially further north in the UK. The first is that quince is essentially a crop of warmer climes. Some varietal names indicate its geographical preferences. In addition to Serbian Gold there’s Portugal, a variety an acquaintance up here in Yorkshire perseveres with despite its irregular cropping. This name hints at the quince’s association with the Iberian Peninsula. Then of course, there’s membrillo, a sweet, thick and sliceable paste made from quince popular in Spain. Indeed, in Spanish membrillo means quince, so entwined is the fruit and the dish.

Three Vranga quince just about fully ripe.

The second problem that besets the quince in much of the UK is the fungal disease quince leaf blight known scientifically as Diplocarpon mespili. This occurs in late spring on the young leaves, first appearing as small dark spots with grey centres. The disease usually spreads so that a good number of leaves turn brown and drop from the tree. Shoot tips may also die back and baby fruit drop or become disfigured. In the case of young trees the disease can be crippling, halting growth or even killing the plant entirely. According to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) quince leaf blight, like many fungal diseases, is worst in moist conditions [read the article here]. With late spring and early summer this year relatively dry it didn’t seem so severe. Although some leaves crinkled and browned, overall the tree looked well and held its young fruitlets.

Will we get a bumper crop again next year? Maybe, but there’s steps that can be taken to increase the chances. To prevent quince blight the RHS advises raking up and disposing of affected leaves as they fall, feeding the tree and pruning out dead shoots in winter.

These measures may help but ultimately I suspect the spring weather, including the extent of late frost which can also damage the blossom, is the critical factor. If you haven’t got a quince, however, don’t let my scepticism put you off planting one. If you live further south than my 54 degrees, especially in the drier South East England, conditions may well be a lot more suitable. And even if you’re in a less favoured area for finicky fruit it’s still a tree to savour. Cydonia makes an attractive tree, especially in spring when it bears beautiful pale pink blossom. It’s a fruit to cherish and be proud of, even if it is a fitful cropper.

I’ll leave the last word with Monty Don, who 20 years ago in his column in The Observer sung the praises of quince far better than I can:

“Be unreasonably proud of the fruit. Drink in the incredible fragrance with which a single quince can seduce a room and feast on its pomaded sweetness. It will, I promise, brighten your northern sky”. [read the full article here]

We hope you enjoyed Mr Fluttergrub’s quintessential guide to the quince and hope it will encourage you to grow your own one day. Maybe you’ve experience of growing quinces yourself? We’d love to hear about them so we can share them with the WWOOF ‘hive mind’. Email us: editor@wwoof.org.uk

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