Plant 198

Cydonia oblonga Mill. (Rosaceae)



There is more to the quince than a convenient rhyme for Edward Lear in his nonsense poem, The owl and the pussy cat. Yellow, downy, pear-shaped quinces are a feature of autumn markets. The raw, mature fruits are hard and astringent, despite being highly aromatic. However, when cooked, pectin-rich quinces are highly prized for the intense flavour they impart to a wide range of foods. In addition to their culinary worth, in gardens, quinces are valued for the large, white to pale-pink flowers they produce in spring.

Cydonia oblonga, a small, deciduous tree, is the sole member of the south-west Asian genus Cydonia. In the past, the genus also included the Chinese quince (Pseudocydonia sinensis) and the East Asian flowering quinces (Chaenomeles). The quince is related to genera such as Malus (apple), Pyrus (pear) and Mespilus (medlar), a group of mainly woody plants that evolved about 50 million years ago. One feature that unites this group, which is particularly diverse in Eurasia, is fruit type. The pome is a fleshy false fruit, that is, parts of the fruit are derived from tissues other than the female parts of the flower.

The generic name is derived from the tree's traditional Greek name, which in turn comes from the ancient city-state of Kydonia (modern Chania) in northwest Crete; the Greeks apparently used rootstocks from the area for grafting their preferred quince varieties. The English name quince has the same origin but through a corruption of the Middle English coin. 'Oblonga' refers to the shape of either the fruit or leaves. However, the etymological paper chase does not stop here; quince also gives us the word 'marmalade'. In Portugal, quinces are preserved by cooking them slowly with a sweetener to produce a very thick paste, called marmelada. This name was transferred to the familiar citrus preserve by the British in the seventeenth century.

The quince is a hardy tree that is tolerant of a very wide range of conditions but needs full sun to produce large flowers and quality fruit. Quince was grown in the Oxford Physic Garden in 1648 under its traditional name 'Malus cotonea'. It was probably being grown as a food plant and a medicinal plant; it was officially recognised as useful for constipation. In 1658, common quince was joined by a quince from Portugal, although this experimental introduction appears to have failed; the tree was not recorded in 1676.

Further reading

Warschefsky EJ 2016. Rootstocks: diversity, domestication, and impacts on shoot phenotypes. Trends in Plant Science 21: 418-437.

Yezi Xiang Y et al. 2016. Evolution of Rosaceae fruit types based on nuclear phylogeny in the context of geological times and genome duplication. Molecular Biology and Evolution 34: 262-281.

Stephen Harris