KENNEWICK -- Some older adults have probably encountered a quince, but today they are a fruit rarely found in grocery stores, farmers' markets, or even backyard orchards.
However, in the 18th century they were quite common in the fruit orchards of New England.
Originally native to southwest Asia and the Caucasus region, quince (Cydonia oblonga) are cultivated in several areas around the world. Those found in specialty U.S. markets are likely to have been grown in Argentina.
It is not surprising that quince aren't popular today. The fruit of most American quince cultivars is hard and astringent -- too dense and sour to be eaten raw. I once tried eating one straight off a tree and could barely make a dent in it with my teeth.
The lumpy, golden-yellow, pear-shaped fruit aren't generally considered attractive, but they do have a marvelous sweet perfume when ripe. The fruit can be quite large, up to a pound in size.
Because the fruit are high in pectin they are used in making jams and jellies. In fact, the word "marmalade" is derived from "marmelo" the Portuguese name for quince.
Marmalade originally referred only to quince jam. It is interesting to note that quince take on a pink to red color when cooked and also can be used to enhance the flavor of apple pies, applesauce and apple cider.
Quince trees are relatively small, growing only to about 15 to 20 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide. The growth is irregular, giving the tree a gnarled appearance as it ages. Quince are hardy in zones five to nine and require winter chilling to stimulate flowering in the coming year. The young fruit are covered with mealy fuzz that wears off as they mature. The pink or white flowers are produced in the spring after pears flower and after the quince leaves emerge.
Quince can be grown in our area. They do best on a site with fertile soil and full sun. While quince are self-fertile and don't require cross-pollination, growers indicate that cross-pollination increases fruit set. The trees need a protected spot where they aren't subjected to temperature extremes.
One challenge to growing quince in our area is that they are vulnerable to attack by codling moth and fireblight.
So why consider growing quince? One reason might be for the "new" and improved quince cultivars available from specialty fruit tree nurseries like Raintree Nursery in Morton (www.raintreenursery.com or 800-391-8892).
Raintree offers foreign cultivars that are different than the ones that were once common in the U.S. These cultivars come from different parts of the world and have better tasting or earlier maturing fruit along with some disease resistance.
One of these is 'Karp's Sweet Quince' from Peru. According to Raintree it has "uniquely sweet, juicy and non-astringent fruit, especially when grown in warm climates" such as California.
Another quince is 'Aromatnaya Russian Quince' from southern Russia. It has fruit with a pineapple flavor that is "sweet enough to eat fresh."
Raintree indicates it "ripens in October and needs to be stored on a windowsill until it starts to soften." Ekmek comes to U.S. gardeners via western Turkey. It has reliable large crops of juicy, yellow, pear-shaped fruit that ripen in September.
Home gardeners who like to try something different might want to consider growing the uncommon quince.
* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension.