The rare beauty of the Chinese quince

Thursday, December 9, 2010; T12

They say that you plant pears for your heirs because pear trees take a while to bear a lot of fruit and then do so for decades, living longer than their sister apple trees. But if you really want a fruit tree to impress your descendants, the choice has to be the pear's distant cousin, the Chinese quince.

It is a tree that probably won't suit the native plant set, as it only came to these shores around 1800. But in other respects it embodies almost everything you would want in a plant: contained habit, beautiful shape, year-round interest, elegant foliage, superb fall color and showy yellow fruit. Its apple-like blooms are a strong pink but relatively sparse.

Its most outstanding attribute comes to the fore now, as the leaves drop. It has one of the most beautiful bark patterns of any tree in the garden. The markings become more pronounced with each passing year: An underlying display of orange-beige is adorned with scales of light green and silver gray bark. The tree is low-branching and forms half a dozen or so trunks, and in time the bark becomes fluted.

You might think such a piece of living sculpture would be in everyone's garden, but I know of only a handful in the metropolitan area, and only one in a private garden, in Chevy Chase. The others are at the U.S. National Arboretum in Northeast Washington, Brookside Garden in Wheaton and at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, which boasts four.

There are often many reasons deserving trees are neglected, but it usually boils down to the fact that people don't know about them and don't shop for them and thus nurseries don't grow them. Landscape designers don't use them because they can't find them. Certain bark trees have developed a limited mass appeal: The crape myrtle and the kousa dogwood are sold by the gazillions. But the Chinese quince is destined to remain a loner. Even if it were more widely known, it grows slowly in a world that wants instant results. For farsighted connoisseurs, it's a natural.

The idea that quince is rare may perplex those who know it as the common herald of spring. Those waxy red and pink flowers are of another quince, a big, thorny shrub called the flowering quince, immortalized in Japanese prints. The quince tree of the fruit orchard is yet another plant, botanically Cydonia oblonga. The beguiling and rare Chinese quince goes by the Latin name of Pseudocydonia sinensis.

It can be planted in full sun or partial shade and like most members of the rose clan dislikes drought and poor soil but can't stand wet soil. The two oldest trees at Dumbarton Oaks are at least 65 years old, and each has a trunk base that's more than 24 inches across. One is right off the shady brick path by the south gate to the walled rose garden. Its foliage is held aloft, obligingly revealing its bark and allowing its use close to a path. Artful pruning when young would be vital for an optimum specimen. The other is another pathside sentinel, this time in an area of the garden known as Melisande's Allee. Here, the tree is given light and elbow room and has developed into a lovely thing.

From its small, demure blossoms come mighty fruits: oblong, citron yellow and heavy enough to bean you if they fell at the wrong moment. The leaves are beautiful, like rose leaflets but rounder. They are a light green, turning rosy pink in the fall. Both the leaves and the fruits linger into December, long after other fruit trees have dropped theirs.

As with pears, the Chinese quince suffers from one disease that needs to be managed, fire blight. If susceptible trees are neglected, this bacteria, which shrivels stems, can overtake a plant and kill it. At Dumbarton Oaks, the gardeners treat each tree with an organic copper-oil spray at bloom time in April, said Gail Griffin, director of gardens and grounds.

The fruit is astringent but useful for cooking, and its pectin content was once valued by cooks who made preserves. In a pie, Griffin uses one quince to three apples, thinly sliced, and also employs the fruits for preserves. When cooked, the flesh "becomes a beautiful cherry red." But have lots of sugar handy. "You would never take a bite out of it," she said.

Whence quince?

Here are places to find Chinese quince trees:

Lazy S's is a mail-order nursery in Barboursville, Va., that sells quart-size plants that can be ordered now and shipped in April. www.lazyssfarm.com .

Raemelton Farm is a wholesale grower in Adamstown, Md., that raises Chinese quince for retail distribution. Owner Steve Black ( Steve@Raemelton.com ) says consumers can order trees from local garden centers next summer for delivery in the fall.

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