February’s star plant – Chaenomeles or Japanese Quince

So I’ll confess straight away that Chaenomeles (or Japanese Quince) is one of my all-time favourite shrubs. It comes in shades from white, through red, orange and peach – but for me, the only colour is red.

The flowers of the Japanese Quince emerge with the first of the crocuses, and continue for several months. The blooms resemble apple blossom (they’re in the same family), and shine, jewel-like, in the spring sunshine.

Once the flowers finally fade, you’ll still have attractive, glossy leaves and, in the autumn, pretty little fruits, which turn from green to gold. The fruit is ornamental, but can also be used in the same way as a true quince – in jams or pickles.

Now, I’ve got a large quince tree in my garden, which I planted in a moment of nostalgia 10 years ago. Most years it produces more fruit that I can jam, jelly, pickle or give away – so I’ve never tried cooking with the much smaller fruit of the Japanese Quince. However, the fruit of the Japanese Quince is rich in vitamins, and high in pectin (which means it will set well). If you’d like to give it a go, there’s a recipe for Japanese Quince Jelly here.

Most of the Chaenomeles sold in the UK originate from two species. Chaenomeles speciosa originated in China, but was cultivated for many years in Japan, from where it was brought to the UK in the end of the eighteenth century. Chaenomeles japonica grew wild in Japan, and was introduced here around the end of the nineteenth century.

Whereas Chaenomeles speciosa is a tall, spreading plant, Chaenomeles japonica is smaller and shrubbier, and tends to sucker. Many of the most popular cultivars come from a hybrid of both, known as Chaenomeles x superba – probably the best choice for a small garden. ‘Crimson and Gold’, with red flowers and gold stamens is widely available. ‘Nicoline‘ is another recommended red-flowered cultivar.

Many lovely cultivars come in shades other than red. However, because Japanese Quince flowers early, the blooms can be damaged by rain, wind and frost – this damage is less noticeable on the red-flowered cultivars than the paler colours. Not that I’m trying to influence you!

Japanese Quince is a tough, and easy to grow shrub. It will grow happily in most situations, either in full sun or part shade. It is generally free from pests and diseases, and once planted, little care is needed except for an annual mulch and feed.

These are great wildlife plants as well: the flowers provide early nectar for bees and other insects, and the thorny network of branches are a great shelter and hiding place for birds. (I have planted a Japanese Quince by our birdbath, and it’s lovely to watch the bluetits hopping from one to the other).

Some garden designers are a bit sniffy about the Japanese Quince, and label it as old fashioned. Well, maybe then I’m old fashioned too – because I think everyone should have at least one Japanese Quince in their garden to welcome in the spring.

Image credits:
Japanese quince” (CC BY 2.0) by sammydavisdog
Japanese_Quince” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Aardvark of Fnord
Flowering Quince – Chaenomeles” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by brianfuller6385
Flowering Quince” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by timpeartrice

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