Until we moved to an old house on two patchwork-planted acres, I had never seen a flowering quince. When I first inspected them in June, I was underwhelmed. Each was a thicket of twiggy, green-leafed branches armed with lethal spikes like something out of Br'er Rabbit's briar patch. Expendable -- or so I thought. Then I tried to extract one.
"To pull it out, you need to dig a big enough hole to get a chain around it and hook the chain to a pickup," says Brent Walston, owner of Evergreen Gardenworks in Kelseyville, Calif., with a laugh.
I left the plant, but spent the next two seasons plotting its removal.
Then, in February, it bloomed. And its virtue dawned. (A lesson in giving plants a full year before deciding to trash or keep them.).
Dark, elegantly bent, leafless branches were suddenly covered with rose-red buds in a beautiful burst of color, a spirit-lifting contrast to the general monochrome surrounding it.
"The flowers are incredibly beautiful," notes Gene Sumi, garden horticulturist at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville. "They are striking in an early spring landscape. That's when they really shine."
The Chinese favor red flowering quince for Chinese New Year, adds Walston. "Their early spring bloom time coincides with the celebration."
Their bloom time is not only early, it's long. For several spectacular weeks, buds open in leisurely succession, creating an enduring burst of color. Additionally, they force well inside in water.
In a vase, three blooming branches look like a Japanese silkscreen -- for weeks.
Favorite for bonsai
Though it's a native of China, flowering quince (Chaenomeles), has also been cultivated in Japan for centuries and is a favorite plant for bonsai (the painstaking Japanese art of potted miniaturized trees and shrubs). The Dutch introduced flowering quince to Long Island in the late 17th century, and by the 18th century it was popular for hedging in New England, because of both its hardiness and its prickly ability to keep out unwanted livestock.
Despite the name, flowering quince, which is also known as ornamental quince and japonica, is not the same plant as the quince fruit tree (Cydonia sinensis), which is not hardy in Maryland. However, the shrubby flowering quince does produce small, rock-hard fruits (though mine never have in their shady location) that Europeans use to make a tart jam and that the Chinese use medicinally for liver and spleen complaints and to promote blood circulation.
While they can also be useful for erosion control and prowler prevention if planted beneath windows, the primary pleasure of flowering quinces are their beautiful, apple-blossom like flowers. (The double-flowered varieties look like camellia blooms.)
"Some blooms are pastel shades," says Sumi. "Others are very bright. There is one called 'Crimson and Gold' that has a brilliant red flower with showy yellow anthers."
Colors range from white 'Nivalis' to the bright red profusion of 'Texas Scarlet' and dark red of 'Simonii' to orange with shades in between. 'Rosea Plena' is pale rose-pink. 'Apple Blossom' has white flowers that turn pink with age. 'Falconet Charlotte' has deep pink flowers, and 'Cameo' is a rich salmon. Each bloom of 'Toyo Nishiki' is pink, white and red.
Vigorous growth habit
While many flowering quinces range from 4 to 10 feet in height, there are also prostrate varieties, like 'Jet Trail', with pure white flowers, and 'Iwai Nishiki,' whose dark red blooms tend to form clusters sometimes 6 inches across. Small, contorted varieties, whose stems are exaggeratedly twisted and gnarled, are nice for landscaping, but are particularly good for bonsai. 'Hime,' with solid red flowers and showy yellow stamens, is a favorite, as is 'Kan Toyo,' whose pink flowers are only about 1/2 -inch across. 'Red Contorted' has solid red buds that open to a deep pink.
Cold-hardy and drought-resistant, flowering quince thrives in almost any soil. They like full sun, though they must be protected from midday sun in excessive heat, and will bloom, though less effusively, in light shade.
Their big drawback is their vigorous growth habit.
"They can get quite large if left unchecked," warns Walston. "Some of big ones like 'Toyo Nishiki' can get to be 10-15 feet tall if you don't prune."
Pruning regularly, either during or immediately after blooming, will keep a flowering quince civilized. For the least maintenance, Walston recommends buying semi-dwarf and dwarf varieties like 'Orange Delight,' which gets only 4 feet tall.
"They're the best for most landscapes, since they won't get out of hand and you don't have to prune to keep them in line," he says.
743 W. Central Ave.
Davidsonville, MD 21035
P.O. Box 537
Kelseyville, CA 95451
www. evergreengardenworks. com
(3 Maryland locations)
11300 Baltimore Ave.
Beltsville, MD 20705
700 Watkins Park Drive
Largo, MD 20772
9545 River Road
Potomac, MD 20854