Flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa or Japonica) is an old-fashioned deciduous shrub that American farmers of the 1800s often grew on their homesteads for its beauty and sometimes for a little bit of fruit. It's a bit of a mystery why farmers chose to grow this plant, as it does not produce large amounts of quality fruit--it is thought perhaps they simply loved the beauty of its early spring flowers.
The flowering quince is native to China and other areas of Asia. A similar Chinese variety of this plant was introduced into England in 1796-, and it quickly spread in popularity. By 1830, the flowering quince was common in home gardens. The United States saw its first flowering quince during this same era, as rural residents of that time planted many of them.
The flowering quince forms a large mass of tangled branches that, when planted near other flowering quince plants, form a nice-looking hedge about 5 feet high. It has thorns, however, that can cause puncture wounds if someone is not careful when working near it. The flowering quince bursts into bloom in early spring, usually in March. Its flowers are large, the size of a U.S. quarter, numerous and usually pink to orange in color. Hybrids and cultivars have been developed--some of them have double flowers with colors ranging from white to pink or red. The foliage often drops by August, leaving the plant bare for half the year or more.
If a late spring frost does not kill forming fruit, the flowering quince produces a tart-tasting fruit that looks a bit like a pear. Some people make jelly from them, but this plant's fruit production is not steady or reliable, so it might be difficult to harvest sufficient fruit to use for jelly. Because of its tartness, eating the fruit like an apple is probably not the pleasant experience most people want.
About 150 cultivars of the flowering quince exist. Local nurseries probably offer limited selections, but Internet mail order sources exist that can offer more varieties. One variety is the "Texas Scarlet," which has bright red flowers. Another is the "Cameo," featuring double pink blooms. A third variety is "Jet Trail," which has white flowers on a 3-foot tall plant. The "Toyo-Nishiki" flowering quince has unusual flowers that are white, red or pink, with some bi-colored flowers, on the same plant.
This plant is hardy in USDA climate zones 5 through 9. It favors sandy to clay soil with good drainage. It should be planted in full sun or in an area that receives partly shady conditions some of each day. Dig a planting hole two or three times larger than your young plant's root ball, and then set your plant in and water it well. Fill in with both the soil you dug out and the soil that was in the plant's nursery pot. If you spread a thick layer of mulch (2 to 3 inches deep) around the plant's base, it will help to keep the soil moist and will also help to prevent weeds from growing around it. It requires little water above the natural rainfall and seems to thrive in semi-arid conditions. The flowering quince should receive a nitrogen-rich fertilizer in spring. Toward the end of winter, the soil around it should be treated with a balanced, slow-release fertilizer.