Although the quince plays an important culinary role in many parts of the world, the fruit remains something of an enigma to many Americans. In fact, Cornell University lists the quince as a "minor fruit," perhaps because it can't be eaten fresh. Yet quince trees, which lend an Asian elegance to the home landscape, also yield a delicious cooking fruit.
A measure of quince's historical popularity as a preserved fruit comes from the fact that the word marmalade originates from the Portuguese for quince, "marmalo." Thought to originate in Asia Minor, the quince eventually made its way to the rest of the world. Today, quinces feature heavily in Middle Eastern and European cuisines.
Once much more popular in the United States than they currently are, quince trees were the star attraction in many home gardens, including Thomas Jefferson's Monticello farm. Herb-quince jellies are a colonial-era classic.
Quince's silvery-gray bark and twisted, gnarled trunk and branches make it a dramatic landscape specimen that fits into even the smallest yards. Trees average between just 12 to 15 feet tall. In spring, 2-inch blossoms of pale pink or white appear just before fruiting time.
Depending on the variety (oval or round), quince fruits resemble bumpy, misshapen apples or pears. Their skins are golden, and the interior white flesh turns a vivid pink when cooked. Quince fruits contain a core and brown pips, much like apples.
One of the few stone fruits which can't be eaten fresh, quince comes into its own when used as a pie, jelly or jam ingredient. Quince trees also make excellent ornamental specimens, and are often used as pollinators of apple and pear trees in home orchards. Breeders use the naturally small quince rootstock to graft dwarf pear trees. Quince branches will perfume a room, as will the fruit, when prepared as a pompadour.
Gardeners interested in purchasing edible quince trees should be careful not to accidentally buy the ornamental shrub, Chaenomeles, sometimes known as flowering quince. Instead, choose Cydonia oblonga, the tree bearing the edible fruit.
Quince fruit contains significant amounts of natural pectin. Cooks use its juices when making preserves of less pectin-rich fruits, thus eliminating the need for commercial pectin.
Largely unknown to modern American consumers, a Spanish delicacy known as "membrillo paste" or "quince cheese" is made by combining quince juice and sugar and simmering until the mixture reaches a jelled state. Similar to jelled cranberry sauce but a bit firmer, sliced membrillo pairs equally well with cheese, lamb and pork.
Quince also makes an excellent poached or stewed dessert by itself, or when combined with pears, apples or berries in pies and cobblers.
Quince trees grow best in Zones 5 to 9. They prefer moist but not waterlogged soil. Excessive amounts of nitrogen in the soil may lead to fire blight, a serious disease capable of killing the tree. Although the trees are considered self-fruitful, grow at least two for significant fruit production. Garden writer Barbara Damrosch recommends mulching to conserve water for the tree's shallow root system.
According to Cornell University, too many pests and diseases affect quince to make it a viable commercial fruit. Along with fire blight, quinces are susceptible to flower bud injury, curculio and scale, as well as borers, tent caterpillars and coddling moths. To minimize these problems, avoid excessive pruning and plant the trees where they won't experience severe changes of temperature and wind exposure.