Where are all the Quince Trees?

I am encountering so many references to quinces in my early modern recipe books and regimens: to eat, to preserve, in tarts and jellies and marmalade, of course. These English people really loved quinces, or they depended on them, and so they brought them to New England, where every garden apparently had a quince tree or bush; apparently only one was needed because they were so fruitful. There was even a moment in time when quinces were considered as a possible staple crop here in Salem: according to Felt’s Annals of Salem, there was a succession of crop failures which led to scarcity of corn in the 1760s, provoking a public inquiry “whether some foreign vegetables might not be introduced, which would serve as a substitute for bread”. The “quince of Portugal” was proposed, along with the “Spanish potato” (did they not know that the potato was a native North American crop?). This is a good clue, confirmed by some of the English evidence: apparently the English variety of quince was not so pleasing as the Mediterranean variety, thus it needed a lot of cooking, steaming, boiling, roasting and sugaring: just perfect for what the English liked to do to all sorts of foods. According to Thomas Moffatt in Health’s Improvement (1655), quinces were worth the trouble: though their raw flesh be as hard as raw beef unto weak stomachs, yet being roasted, or baked, or made into Marmalade, or cunningly preserved, they give a wholesome and good nourishment.” This was fine for the seventeenth century, but in the nineteenth century I think people wanted to just pick a piece of fruit off the tree and eat it, and consequently Robert Manning, Salem’s superstar horticulturist (and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s uncle) just gives a few paragraphs to quince trees in his New England Book of Fruits and seems more interested in grafting his beloved pears onto them to create dwarf varieties. As quince also served as a type of pre-modern gelatin the development of alternative sources and processes in the nineteenth century were factors that must have aided its gradual disappearance as well. By the later nineteenth century, there were only to be found in “grandmothers’ gardens” and now—nowhere.

Quince San Diego

Quince Fuchs

Quince Cakes

quince newenglandbookof00mannrich_0070 1847

Quince Bush Arthur Wesley Down 1895 MFAQuince, Cabbage, Melon & Cucumbers, by Juan Sanchez Cotan, 1602, San Diego Museum of Art; a Quince tree in Leonhart Fuchs’ De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants), 1542the eighteenth-century recipe book of the Marchioness of Wentworth and a recipe for “Quince Cakes”;  “Quince stock when grafted or budded with a Pear”, Robert Manning’s New England Book of Fruits, 1847; Arthur Wesley Dow, “Our Quince Bush”, 1895, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Well, except for the Bonnefont Herb Garden at the Cloisters (below) and there are a few quince boosters out there so maybe we will see a revival. Since they are small trees, they are perfect for urban courtyard gardens like mine, so I’m looking for a space…..and speaking of small urban gardens, for those of you in Salem (or nearby), the creator of one of the most impressive gardens in Salem (which you can see here) is giving a talk this Thursday night in the atrium of the Peabody Essex Museum. No doubt her garden is illustrative of her knowledge, which means we will all learn a lot!

Quince Cloisters

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Gardening event


14 responses to “Where are all the Quince Trees?

  • Wendy Reilly Harris

    Thanks for the lovely photo of a quince tree.
    I was introduced to quince in Warsaw, Poland
    in the late 1990s. Someone who
    had quince trees in their yard made me a bottle
    of quince syrup to be mixed with water for a refreshing drink. I considered this to be
    a unique and wonderful gift. I have never
    been able to duplicate it. Delicious!

  • Lauren McCormack

    We have a quince tree with fruit on it right now at the Marblehead Museum’s Jeremiah Lee Mansion (1768) Garden, 161 Washington Street, Marblehead! Stop by and grab a quince. The grounds are open dawn to dusk.

  • Carol J. Perry

    I used a quince tree in the plot of the sixth book in my Witch City Mystery series–It Takes a Coven. (Shameless self promotion) There was one in our next door neighbor’s yard on Southwick Street in Salem. I remember quince jelly from that neighbor. We lived at #18. If you do a drive-by you might see it still there. I hope it is!

  • Jennifer Klahn

    There is a quince tree in the yard of the yellow PEM owned historic house on Federal Street (we moved from Salem and I forget the name of the house). It is right by the front of the house, next to the fence.

  • FairytaleFeminista

    I didn’t discover quince until I left the country and then only as a paste. It’s a shame it isn’t more popular because it’s amazing in grilled cheese sandwiches (that was my own invention)!

  • Chris

    Hi Donna,

    I travelled a short way down this road. I saw the quince varieties listed by the Mannings. I’ve visited the quinces at the Cloisters and like you I have wondered why there are not seen more often. I think the old twisted tree that has a bench around it at the Safford mansion garden is a quince. I was planning to confirm it next spring when it blossomed. I see the note above that there is a quince at the Pierce Nichols House; that’s one I missed! Happy to know it’s there.

  • farmstandculture

    My house was build around 1790 and when I walk to the neighbor’s sometimes I have to walk over these large, greenish, hard apples. Just this year, it dawned on me that it must be the old quince orchard for the property! I don’t know how long these trees have been around, but they are much taller than I ever thought quince could be. At least 20′! Too high to harvest easily.

  • Sharon Abel

    I too have been looking for a good fruit bearing quince bush.
    My grandfather had one growing under his bedroom window ( the unseen little thorns a wonderful detorant against people trying to break in), wonderfully fragrant…especially at night when sleeping in summer.
    I never knew what they were, or that they were there…until kids started picking them up off ground in fall to throw at kids…I took one to local nursery and asked what it was ( this was before google)…was surprised, needless to say, because I remembered reading about them in 7th grade on how our early americans used them for jelly and jams.
    I searched the whole library section cookbooks looking for recipes…and only found a few, that have sadly lost. I do remember it having a hard stone inside, and cooking them down seemed to take forever. I remember making a sorta relish that went very nicely with a Turkey dinner like a version of cranberry relish would do.
    Am still looking for a couple plants to grow..hopefully they’ll make a comeback, as the flowering quince plants now have a lot to live up too.

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