Quince is an undersized deciduous tree that usually grows up to a height of three to five meters (nine feet to 15 feet) and has a width of about four to six meters. This variety is the solitary member of the genus Cydonia and resembles the pear and apple trees. Quince bears large, single flowers whose hues range from white to pink. Like the apple and pear, quince bears pomes that are scented and has a golden hue when mature. The quince fruits are usually round or pear shaped. They are usually around 7 cm to 12 cm in length and 6 cm to 9 cm in width.
People have been cultivating quince since time immemorial and was familiar to the ancient Greeks. The botanical name of the tree ‘Cydonia' denotes Cydon located on the island of Crete - where the best variety of quince trees is found. The general name of the tree has been drawn from the term ‘quints' denoting the plural of the old French name for the quince fruit. As the Greeks and Italians were not familiar with oranges till the period of the Crusades, the quinces were historically considered to be golden apples, references of which are found in traditional literature as well as Greek mythology. In fact, the Greeks valued the quince so much that they considered its fruit to be blessed by Aphrodite or Venus and the statues of this Greek Goddess show her holding a quince fruit in her right hand. These statues of Venus with a quince fruit in her right hand refers to the prized ‘golden apple' awarded to the Goddess by Paris as an appreciation of her unparalleled beauty. As the fruit was considered an icon of the goddess of love, traditionally the bride and the groom ate a single quince fruit during their marriage ceremony with a view to endorse compatibility and bliss. This ritual continued till the Middle Ages when people presented quince fruits as a symbol of love and they were consumed at wedding breakfasts as a preparation for the charming and enjoyable days between married couples.
As the quince is native to warm-temperate regions, it is believed that the fruits of this tree are more sweet and juicy when grown in hotter climatic conditions than cooler regions. When grown in cooler climatic conditions, the quince fruits are prone to become extremely sharp-tasting and have a somewhat fibrous surface. Hence, quinces grown in England needs to be boiled, sweetened and, at times, filtering before they become edible. Hence, most of the English quinces are used to prepare jellies and marmalades.
Roman historian Pliny held the quince in high esteem for its therapeutic value, while during the Shakespearean period people in England used the fruit to alleviate stomach problems. The quince fruit possesses astringent properties and syrup prepared with it was once used to treat diarrhea. However, presently, herbal medicine practitioners only use the seeds of the fruit for therapeutic purposes. When put in water, the seeds engorge and are used for their mild laxative features much in the same way as linseed or psyllium is used to promote bowel movements. Similar to the quince fruits, their seeds also possess astringent properties and may be effective in curing inflammations and tenderness in the mouth.
The quince has close association with the Japanese quince called ‘japonica' or Chaenomeles japonica. This species is well accepted as a garden decorative tree, but it hardly ever bears fruit when grown in cooler climatic conditions.
The quince possesses several therapeutic properties and many parts of the tree are used to treat different conditions. The bark of the quince stem has astringent properties and is recommended for the treatment of ulcers. The seeds of the quince fruit possess gentle, but dependable laxative, anti-inflammatory and astringent properties. The seeds puff up when placed in water and forms a sticky substance that has a comforting and softening action when used internally. This sticky mass formed by soaking the seeds in water is used to heal respiratory ailments, particularly in children. In addition, this gelatinous substance is also applied topically to heal minor burns and bruises.
The quince fruit possesses astringent, cardiac, digestive, carminative (relieving flatulence), anti-vinous (treating alcohol addition), emollient (softening), diuretic, pectoral (treating lung ailments), peptic (promoting digestion), expectorant, refrigerant (alleviating fever), stimulant, restorative (curative) and tonic properties. Raw quince fruits have a very caustic flavor and syrup prepared with it is used to treat diarrhea. This herbal remedy is considered to be safe for use by children. In addition, the quince fruit as well as the juice extracted from it also acts as an effective mouthwash or gargle to heal gum problems, tender throats as well as mouth ulcers. The leaves of this tree enclose pectin and tannin. While the tannin present in quince leaves can be utilized as astringent, pectin has positive impact on the circulatory system as it helps to lower blood pressure.
Most varieties of the quince fruits are usually extremely tough, caustic and have a bitter flavor and cannot be consumed unless they are softened by frost and consequent decay - a process called ‘bletting'.
Quince fruits cannot be consumed fresh. Hence, they are usually used to prepare jam, jelly, marmalade and a type of pudding. Alternately, the fruits may also be peeled and subsequently roasted, baked or cooked as a stew. The flesh of quince fruits turns reddish when they are cooked for a prolonged period. As the fruits have a strong scent, small quantities of it may be added to jams and pies prepared with apples with a view to enhance their flavor. If you add a cube of quince fruit to apple sauce, it helps to enhance the flavor of the sauce. It may be mentioned here that the word ‘marmalade' originally denoted a jam prepared with quince and is drawn from the Portuguese name for this fruit - ‘marmelo'. Like many other fruits, quince may also be fermented to prepare a variety of wine.
People in Iran and several other regions of the Middle East use the dried pits (the hard inner layer of the pericarp) for treating tender throats as well as drawing out cough. They soak the pits in water for some time and then drink the sticky substance produced as a cough syrup. This herbal medicine is usually used to treat children because it does not contain any alcohol and is completely natural. One type of quince cultivated in the Middle East can be consumed raw and does not need to be cooked.
Quinces are usually cultivated in the central and southern regions of Europe where the temperatures are comparatively hotter during summers and help the fruits to become completely ripe. Quinces are never grown in large numbers, but one or two trees of the species are grown in assorted orchards among apple and other fruit trees. Quince trees should be grown in orchards having plenty of trees. Although the gardening of quince trees have not been very successful owing to wet climatic conditions and lack of enough heat during summers, the fruit was first mentioned in an English text in the later part of the 13th century. Therefore, instead of growing quinces, people in England cultivate Chaenomeles bushes, as the fruits of this species are considered to be an excellent alternative for quinces. Quittensaft, a juice prepared from quinces, is a very familiar drink in Germany. People in the Balkans as well as some other places prepare a type of brandy with quinces. It is interesting to note that people in Slovenia, Croatia plant a quince tree whenever a baby is born as the tree is considered to be a sign of love, life and fertility.
People in Malta prepare a type of jam with quince fruits. Locals there dissolve a teaspoon of the quince fruit jam in a cup of boiling water and drink the solution to treat intestinal uneasiness. This is a very common and traditional herbal remedy in the region. The quince is known as ‘sfarjel' in Lebanon, where people use it to prepare jams. On the other hand, people in Syria cook quince fruits in pomegranate paste, called ‘dibs rouman' locally, along with shank meat and ‘kibbeh' (a rice pie prepared with burghul and minced meat that is popular in the Middle East) and the dish is called ‘kibbeh safarjalieh'. The quince is known as ‘beh' in Iran and the fruit is used both raw as well as in jams and stews, while the seeds are used to treat pneumonia and other lung ailments. People in different regions of Afghanistan collect the quince seeds and boil them in water. They drink the solution as a remedy for pneumonia. People in neighboring Pakistan prepare a stew with quince seeds and sugar called ‘muraba'. The fruit is stewed till it becomes vivid red and is subsequently stored in jars and consumed like jams.
Although this plant species was introduced in North and South America (also known as the New World), quince has gradually become a rare species in North America as it is vulnerable to fireblight malady due to the bacterium Erwinia amylovora. However, quinces are still cultivated in several regions in South America, such as Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. In fact, presently, more or less the entire supply of quinces to North America is from Argentina. There was a time when people in Latin America used the gelatinous coating of the quince seeds for giving shape to hair and hair style.
In the South American countries, such as Chile, Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela as well as in Spain, the quince is known by its Spanish name ‘membrillo'. People in these countries cook the quince fruits into a jelly like chunks or solid reddish paste called ‘dulce de membrillo'. These products are consumed with cheese, in sandwiches or along with fresh curds. Normally, people use their traditional cheese known as manchego cheese. People in Portugal prepare a similar sweet dish with quince fruits and it is called marmelada. The same sweet dish is also prepared by people in Hungary where it is known as ‘quince cheese'. The sweet dish carne de membrillo or quince meat has a sweet and floral essence and it forms an excellent contrast when consumed with cheese, which has a tangy flavor. In fact, boiled quince fruits are also very popular when used in desserts like the murta con membrillo, which is prepared by mixing quince with ugni molinae. A similar dessert is also prepared and consumed by the people in Dalmatia.
The quince is also used as a rootstock for propagating other plants through the grafting process. The quince has the ability to dwarf the development of pears, compelling them to become mature early and produce more fruits. In addition, the quince also helps the pears trees to bear more branches that yield fruits rather than simple vegetative growth and also facilitate as well as hasten the maturity of the fruits.
People in a number of places in South America as well as in the Canary Islands, use the quince fruit as a plaything. They use a quince fruit to play a casual beach toss-and-swim game - a sport generally very popular with the teens. It is interesting to note that when the quince is mixed with salty water, the flavor of the ripened fruit will change from sour to sweet. The toss-and-swim game is played by tossing a mature quince into the sea. Subsequently, all the players dive into the water to grab hold of the quince and any player who catches it first, takes a bite and then throws the quince into the water again. The game continues in this manner till the entire fruit is eaten by the players who catch it at some time or the other.
The quince fruit may be consumed raw or in a cooked form. When the trees are cultivated in warm temperate or tropical climatic conditions, the quince fruits may be soft and juicy, appropriate for being consumed raw. In addition, the fruit may also be used to prepare jams, jellies, marmalades and other preserves. When the fruit is cooked with apples it adds to the latter's flavor. The quince fruits have a strong fragrance, but are tough and have a somewhat coarse flesh. The fruits are approximately 10 cm long and 9 cm wide getting thinner at the base. The seeds of the fruit may be used to prepare a pleasant and therapeutic drink. To prepare the drink grind dried seeds and boil them in water for about five minutes. Later, add a sweetener to make it tasty.
Habitat and cultivation
The quince is indigenous to the warm, temperate southwest Asia in the Caucasus region, especially Iran and Turkey. In addition, the species is native to parts of Greece. Presently, quince is extensively cultivated in the Near East (the area around the eastern Mediterranean). In addition, quince has been introduced and widely grown in the tropical regions of America as well as the warm climes of southern Europe.
While this species thrives in most types of soils, it has a preference for light (loose and large-grained) and damp soil that is fertile. The quince grows well in total sunlight. The trees do not like extremely arid or drenched soils. Although the quince grows well in partial shade, it does not bear enough fruits when grown in such condition. While this species is not cultivated extensively, the quince has been grown by people for over 2000 years now for its fruits and seeds, both of which are edible. The quince is often used as a dwarfing rootstock for other fruit-bearing trees, such as pears. This species has a number of popular varieties and the type ‘Maliformis' matures perfectly in relatively cooler summers. However, other varieties of the quince need warmer summers for the fruits to become completely ripe.
The quince is primarily propagated by means of its seeds, though some people also grow the plant from cuttings of mature wood of the trees. It is best to sow the seeds in a cold frame immediately after they are ripe. Alternately, the seeds may also be sown in February. The seeds require stratification (placing them in damp sand, sawdust or peat moss) to promote germination. Fresh seeds should be chilled for 18 weeks, while old preserved seeds require two weeks of warm stratification followed by 18 weeks of cold treatment. When the seedlings have grown sufficiently large so that they may be handled, take them out from and plant separately in the cold frame till their first winter passes away. During spring or the early phase of summer, place the young plants in their permanent positions outdoors after the last expected frost.
As mentioned earlier, the quince may also be propagated from cuttings of mature wood. The best time to do this is November. Put the cuttings in a cold frame and do the layering during the next spring. It takes about a year to propagate the quince by this process. The suckers may be eliminated during spring.
The sticky substance available from the quince seed covering is utilized as a substitute of gum Arabic. This mucilage is usually used to polish different materials. Chemical analysis of the quince seed has shown that it encloses 20 per cent mucilage and 15 per cent fatty oils. The fruit has rich pectin content, while the leaves enclose 11 per cent tannin. It may be mentioned here that pectin is considered to shield the body from radiation.