Delicious for jams, jellies and pastes, quince is making a comeback in North America.
If you’ve never seen a quince tree, you’re not alone. Once a staple of backyard colonial gardens, the noble quince fell out of favor as gardeners looked for fruits offering more immediate gratification. Picked off the tree, quince usually tastes, well, sour. But nothing rivals their flavor and aroma when processed into jams and desserts. Now that news of their worth is getting back around, quince are experiencing something of a renaissance–and with good reason.
What is quince?
Quince trees (Cydonia oblonga) are a part of the Rosaceae family and are closely related to apples and pears. They are known for their distinctive, pear-shaped fruit with a golden-yellow hue when ripe. Quince fruit, while seldom eaten raw due to the tartness noted above, is prized for making jams, jellies, and preserves.
Beyond their culinary applications, quince trees bear delicate white blossoms in the spring, adding ornamental value to your garden. For a purely ornamental quince tree, however, try the Chaenomeles japonica instead. The pink flowers are more prolific and showier in the ornamental garden.
How hard is quince to grow?
These deciduous trees are a treasure for any gardener willing to invest a little time and effort. And they’re worth it: once established, a quince tree will produce for more than 50 years! Whether you’re an experienced orchardist or a novice green thumb, the rewards of nurturing quince trees are well worth the journey.
Before you start planting your quince tree, however, it’s essential to choose the right variety for your climate and preferences. Like most fruit trees, quince trees come in different cultivars, each with unique characteristics. Here’s what you need to consider when choosing a quince tree for your garden.
What are the best quince varieties?There are various quince cultivars, each with its distinct flavor, size, and growth habits. Some of the most common quince varieties include:
- Cydonia oblonga ‘Champion’: A hardy and disease-resistant variety known for its large, golden-yellow fruits.
- Cydonia oblonga ‘Aromatnaya’: Known for its sweet, fragrant fruit and compact growth, making it ideal for small gardens.
- Cydonia oblonga ‘Pineapple’: Produces large, pineapple-scented fruit with a sweet and slightly tart flavor.
- Cydonia oblonga ‘Smyrna’: This variety is famous for its pear-shaped, aromatic fruits and is well-suited for cooking and preserves.
- Cydonia oblonga ‘Portugal’: Often used for making quince paste, ‘Portugal’ quinces have a mild, sweet flavor and are high in pectin.
Where do quince trees grow best?
Quince trees thrive in a range of climates, from temperate to Mediterranean, but their performance can vary depending on the local conditions. Consider the following factors:
Quinces prefer climates with cold winters for dormancy and warm summers for fruit ripening. They can tolerate temperatures as low as -10°F (-23°C) during the dormant period. Typically they grow best in USDA growing zones 5 to 9.
Some quince varieties require a specific number of chill hours (periods of cold temperatures) during the winter to fruit properly. Check the chill hour requirements for your chosen variety and ensure it matches your region’s climate.
When choosing a quince variety, take into account your local climate, available space, and intended use for the fruit. If you have limited space, a compact variety like ‘Aromatnaya’ might be ideal. For preserving or making quince paste, ‘Smyrna’ or ‘Portugal’ could be your top choices. By selecting the right variety, you set the foundation for a successful quince tree that will thrive in your specific conditions and yield delicious fruit.
How do you plant a quince tree?
Proper planting ensures your tree establishes a strong root system and sets the stage for a bountiful harvest. There are five main steps to successfully planting your tree.
- Select the best planting site: Quince trees require full sunlight (at least six hours a day) to produce abundant fruit. Choose a sunny, sheltered location that provides protection from strong winds that could damage branches. Adequate spacing between quince trees, typically 10 to 15 feet apart, allows for proper air circulation and prevents overcrowding.
- Test and amend your soil: Before planting your quince tree, conduct a soil test to understand its pH, nutrient content, and drainage capabilities. Quince trees thrive in well-draining soil with a pH level between 6.0 and 7.0. If necessary, amend the soil with organic matter, such as compost, to improve fertility. If your soil remains moist much of the year, ensure good drainage by planting in raised beds or mounding the soil.
- Dig a big enough hole: Dig a planting hole that is slightly wider and deeper than the root system of your quince tree. The hole should accommodate the roots without bending or crowding. Position the quince tree in the hole at the same depth it was growing in its nursery container or as marked on the tree’s trunk (usually where the root flare begins). If planting a grafted tree, ensure the graft line is 2 to 3 inches above soil level to prevent the tree from reverting to its original rootstock.
- Provide enough water: After planting, water the quince tree deeply to help the soil settle and establish good root-to-soil contact. If possible, install irrigation or use a tree-ring soaker hose to ensure your quince gets enough moisture during its first year.
- Mulch your tree: Apply a layer of organic mulch, such as wood chips or straw, around the base of the tree to conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and regulate soil temperature.
What is the best way to fertilize quince?
Quince trees benefit from regular feeding, but it’s crucial to provide them with the right nutrients at the appropriate times.
Typically, the best time to fertilize a quince tree is in the early spring, just as it begins to break dormancy and show signs of new growth. Apply a second round of fertilizer in late spring or early summer to support continued development.
Organic fertilizers release nutrients slowly and improve soil health over time, which is especially beneficial for long-lived fruit trees like quinces. The best organic fertilizer for quince trees is well-rotted compost or aged manure. These natural amendments provide a rich source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium while enhancing the soil’s structure and microbial activity.
Spread organic fertilizer evenly around the base of the tree, avoiding direct contact with the trunk. Water the area thoroughly after fertilizing to help the nutrients reach the tree’s root zone.
How should you prune and train quince trees?
Pruning quince trees is essential to maintain their shape, promote healthy growth, and ensure good fruit production. Pruning consists of several important steps.
- Use sharp, clean pruning shears or loppers to make clean cuts. Always wear appropriate safety gear, including gloves and protective eyewear, when pruning to prevent accidents.
- Prune quince annually during late winter or early spring, while they are still dormant. Remove dead or diseased branches and any crossing or crowded branches to improve air circulation.
- Establish a central leader on young quince trees. Prune away competing leaders or branches that interfere with the central leader’s growth.
- Create a sturdy, balanced framework by pruning to create an open canopy. This allows sunlight to penetrate and ensures better fruit ripening. You can achieve this by pruning to outward-facing buds, a practice that helps direct the new growth away from the center of the tree, promoting better air circulation, sunlight exposure, and overall tree health.
What pests and diseases affect quince trees?
While quince trees are generally disease-resistant, they aren’t immune to common pests and diseases that can affect fruit trees. Being vigilant and proactive in managing these issues is essential to ensure the health and productivity of your quince tree.
Common quince tree pests
- Aphids: These small, soft-bodied insects feed on the sap of quince leaves and can cause curling and distortion. Control aphids with insecticidal soap, neem oil or aphid traps.
- Scale insects: Scale insects attach themselves to the branches and leaves, forming a protective shell. They can weaken the tree by sucking sap. Remove scales by hand or use horticultural oil.
- Mites: Mites can cause stippling and discoloration of leaves. Spraying the tree with a strong stream of water can help dislodge them. Predatory insects like ladybugs can also control mite populations.
Common diseases affecting quince
- Fire blight: This bacterial disease can cause wilting, blackening, and a scorched appearance. Prune and destroy affected parts, and apply copper-based fungicides during the dormant season. Avoid over-fertilizing with nitrogen as this can exacerbate the problem.
- Leaf spot: Leaf spot diseases like black spot and brown spot can lead to leaf discoloration and defoliation. Keep the area around the tree clean, remove affected leaves, and use fungicides if necessary.
- Rust: Quince rust can manifest as orange pustules on leaves and stems. Prune and remove affected branches, and use fungicides to control the spread.
Identifying symptoms and control methods
Regularly inspect your quince tree for signs of pests and diseases. Early detection is crucial for effective management. When symptoms are identified, remove and destroy affected branches and leaves. Ensure proper disposal to prevent the spread of pathogens. Keep the area around the tree free of fallen leaves and debris, as this can harbor pests and diseases. It’s especially important to clean these up after fruiting and before the dormant season.
When are quinces ready to harvest?
Quinces can be a little more challenging than other fruit to gauge ripeness, since you can’t pluck one off the tree and test it for sweetness. Typically quinces change from green to yellow when they ripen. However, this change can be subtle, and some quince varieties remain green even when ripe. Instead of relying solely on color, pay more attention to the fruit’s texture.
A ripe quince should yield slightly to gentle pressure when you press your thumb into it. It should feel firm but not rock-hard. Ripe quinces also smell sweet, emitting a floral fragrance. If you notice a pleasant aroma coming from the fruit, it’s a good indicator that they are ready for harvest. But beware: don’t let quince get overripe. They are best harvested before this stage and stored until ready to use. Fruits will continue to ripen after picking.
How to use quince
While quince isn’t eaten raw, its high pectin content and delicious cooked flavor makes it perfect for jams, jellies and pastes. Quince paste, also known as “membrillo” in Spanish cuisine, is a popular preparation. It involves simmering quince with sugar until it thickens into a dense, sweet ‘butter’. It’s often served with cheese or used as a condiment.
Quince preserves are common in Europe. Made by cooking quince with sugar and sometimes spices, this preparation simmers long and slow until it becomes tender and forms a thick, flavorful syrup. Use these preserves as a delicious spread on toast or as a topping for yogurt and desserts.
Quinces can also be used to make homemade liqueur or infused into hot teas and cocktails, offering a warm, comforting aroma. For savory dishes, incorporate quinces into stews or roasted meats to add a sweet and tangy note to your meals.
More frequently asked questions
How big will a quince tree grow?
This will depend on the type you choose, but an average quince tree will grow up to fifteen feet tall and wide. For a smaller variety, buy a quince variety grafted onto dwarf rootstock.
How long until a quince tree produces fruit?
Most quince trees will produce their first crop of fruit within five to six years.
Do I need to plant more than one quince tree to get fruit?
No. Quince trees are self-fertile and don’t need another tree for pollination.
When is the best time of year to plant a quince tree?
Planting a bare root tree is best done in spring or fall. If you buy a quince tree in a pot (with a full rootball), aim to plant during the dormant season if possible.
Should I thin the fruit on a quince tree?
Thinning your developing quince fruit can help your tree ripen more fruit overall. Early in the season, pluck off smaller, less developed fruit when they are still about the size of a marble. Leave enough space between the remaining fruit to ensure they have room to grow to maturity. The exact spacing and how much fruit to thin will depend on the size and health of the tree and the variety of quince.