gardening, nature

Plant profile: Ornamental quince

Ornamental quince was one of the first shrubs I planted 28 years ago as a new gardener. Later, I would read in a Texas gardening book that it is best planted to the back of the border, where you notice it when in bloom but can ignore it the rest of the year. I am so glad I didn’t read that until long after I had planted mine front and center, as I might have been tempted to believe them. Or I might have taken that as a challenge and still planted it front and center. Most likely, the latter because I have always been a rebel gardener.

Last year was devoted to garden reconstruction and renewal. Each and every plant was given the critical eye. Does it still deserve space in my new garden vision? Gone are my roses, lost several years ago to rose rosette virus. Gone now are the variegated privet that I planted as a cheap and easy hedge, long before I knew or understood how invasive they can be. Gone is the vitex, also now recognized as an invasive weed. Gone are the two redbuds that framed my back gardens. Oh, how I do miss thee, dear redbuds. Alas. “Short lived” lived up to that description when they both died right at their 25 year mark. But that original quince? It is still lovely. It is still going strong. And, most importantly, it survived my garden reconstruction assessment, as did the four ornamental quince I planted after losing my beloved antique roses. Yes, quince does indeed still warrant space in my garden. In fact, I will soon plant another two quince, even though I am shifting from ornamental gardener to primarily fruit, vegetable and herb gardener.

Some may question why I would grow seven non-fruit bearing shrubs at a time when I am attempting to grow as much of my food as possible on a standard suburban lot. (Read: Space is at a premium.) First, though, a bit of horticulture dissection. There are multiple plants referred to as quince – ornamental quince (Chaenomeles) and Cydonia oblonga, which produces an edible fruit commonly known as quince. For this discussion, I am referring to the first, Chaenomeles. (These may or may not produce bitter, largely inedible, fruit, depending on variety.)

Ornamental quince is a deciduous shrub without any remarkable fall foliage. One day it is your basic green shrub, a few days later its branches are bare. In my zone 8a garden, it will start to set flower buds shortly after losing its leaves. Mine have been blooming now since shortly after Christmas, even through our February ice storm. Yes, the flowers were beat down for a few days, but they quickly perked back up and resumed glowing in the winter sun. If you look closely and critically, there is notable browning from the ice, though it is easily overlooked.

We are now one week in to March, which means that this shrub has been blooming for a full two months. If it were blooming in the middle of summer, one might scoff at the idea of a shrub blooming for only two months. But that is where quince really shines. It blooms in mid to late winter in North Texas, at a time when very little else is blooming. It has virtually no competition for our attention, aside from our winter pansies.

Ornamental quince is Mother Nature’s way of saying, “You got this. If I can shine through some storms, so can you.” It is for this reason that 1.) I am glad I didn’t know I should have relegated quince to the back of the border and 2.) I will soon have seven ornamental quince in my melodious garden.

Quince is as carefree as shrubs come. I have never pruned mine, nor deadheaded them or shaped them up in any way. The branches are rather gangly and arching while bare, though this gives them a soft rounded appearance when fully leafed out. I may or may not hit them with some organic fertilizer as I am applying fertilizer to the lawn or flower beds.

In full disclosure, I planted my original quince so long ago that I have long since lost any record of which quince variety it is. I have not been able to find any reference to one that exactly matches it. This one sports a single row of petals in a deep coral color, does not have thorns and has never set fruit. It has also stayed at at tidy three feet tall and three to four feet wide. (If you happen to know, please drop a comment.)

Double Take Scarlet quince is a newer cultivar and one I planted in my early post-rose days. This is the first year that it has put on a real show in my garden. I have found that if one purchases a smaller, one gallon size shrub, they will take a few years to get settled before blooming well, though that may also be due to my laissez faire approach to fertilizing.

Once spring is in full swing, the quince is finished blooming and fully leafed out. It could easily fade off now, overshadowed by nearby spring and summer blooms. However, that is when quince goes to work, in my opinion. You see, once its branches are fully covered with greenery, it makes a fabulous shelter for insects, lizards and small birds, all an essential part of a vibrant ecosystem. Too many times, we overlook the importance of natural shelter, protection from both the elements and from species further up the food chain. To smaller species, the quince’s tangle of arching branches offers just the perfect habitat for them to weather out a storm or seek protection from a hawk flying overhead.

Wildlife need shelter, food and water to survive, and gardeners need wildlife. Wildlife brings life and vibrancy in to the garden. And wildlife helps with pest management and control, for the ladybettles come in to feed on the aphids, which draws in the lizards and, suddenly, before your eyes, you have an entire ecosystem seeking to balance itself out.

In a forest, there are multiple layers, from the canopy far overhead, to the vines that climb up those trees to the life below ground. The understory or shrub layer of a forest or backyard garden is an important layer for wildlife, as this is their shelter. The lizards or small birds that come in seeking shelter may stay and eat some insects, therefore the shrub layer may also provide a natural food source. Water collecting on the leaves or petals of a bloom may also provide essential water. Quince provides all this – and it blooms in the dead of winter, too!

So Keep Calm and Garden On and Plant Some Shrubs. You won’t regret it. Trust me.

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