Plant of the Month March 2019: Chaenomeles

Chaenomeles are members of the Rosaceae family. They are native to Japan, Korea, China, Bhutan, and Burma. These plants are related to the quince (Cydonia oblonga) and the Chinese quince (Pseudocydonia sinensis). The word chaenomeles comes from the Greek chaino melon meaning ‘gaping apple’; the fruit are both decorative and edible once cooked. Raw fruit are extremely astringent. The fruit is very high in vitamin C and pectin so is ideal for making preserves; the word marmalade comes from the Portuguese word for quince, marmelo.

Although all quince species have flowers, gardeners often refer to these species as ‘flowering quince’, since Chaenomeles are grown ornamentally for their flowers, not for their fruits. These plants have also been called ‘Japanese quince’, and the name ‘japonica’ (referring to C. japonica) was widely used for these plants in the 19th and 20th centuries, although this common name is not particularly distinctive, since ‘japonica’ is a specific epithet shared by many other plants. 

Joseph Banks introduced the shrub as Pyrus japonica now known as Chaenomeles speciosa at the end of the 18th century. It was a native of China but had been cultivated for years in Japan. 

Chaenomeles japonica was introduced a century later. It grew wild in Japan and was introduced to this country by a Bristol nursery, W Maule & Son. It is small and suckering, less useful in the garden than the descendants of C. speciosa; it has scarlet flowers that are followed by very pretty round, scented, orange fruit. 

There are three species within the genus; the Chinese C. cathayensis, the Japanese C. japonica and C. speciosa which is found in China and Korea. C. cathayensis is native to western China and has the largest fruit of the genus, pear-shaped, 10–15 cm long and 6–9 cm wide. The flowers are usually white or pink. The leaves are 7–14 cm long. C. japonica (Maule’s quince or Japanese quince) is native to Japan, and has small fruit, apple-shaped, 3–4 cm in diameter. The flowers are usually red but can be white or pink. The leaves are 3–5 cm long. C. speciosa (Chinese flowering quince; syn. C. laganaria, Cydonia lagenaria, Cydonia speciosa, Pyrus japonica) is native to China and Korea, and has hard green apple-shaped fruit 5–6 cm in diameter. 

There are four main hybrids available and many cultivars. The most common C. × superba is a hybrid of C. speciosa × C. japonica, while C. × vilmoriniana is a hybrid of C. speciosa × C. cathayensis, and C. × clarkiana is a hybrid of C. japonica × C. cathayensis. The hybrid C. × californica is a tri-species hybrid (C. × superba × C. cathayensis). The most commonly cultivated Chaenomeles referred to as ‘japonica’ are actually the hybrids C. × superba and C. speciosa; C. japonica itself is not as commonly grown. 

Numerous named cultivars of all of these hybrids are available and have become popular ornamental shrubs in parts of Europe and North America, grown both for their bright flowers and as a spiny barrier. The flowers are 3–4.5 cm diameter, with five petals; the range in flower colour is from white through pink and apricot to red and scarlet and come in single, double and semi-double forms. Flowering is in late winter or early spring. The leaves are alternately arranged, simple, and have a serrated margin. The fruit is a pome with five carpels; it ripens in late autumn. Some cultivars grow up to 2 m tall, but others are much smaller and creeping.

C. speciosa‘Moerloosei’ AGM, is sometimes called ‘Apple Blossom’. It has large white flowers that are coral pink in bud, and they open a couple of months sooner than any apple tree. C. speciosa ‘Nivalis’ has pure white flowers best seen against a dark hedge or a brick wall. Both of these are large. On a wall they will reach 2m quite quickly and in the open they make big spreading bushes. C. speciosa ‘Geisha Girl’ (d) AGM has semi-double salmon-pink flowers, and forms a dwarf shrub. C. speciosa‘Simonii’ (d) has blood red, semi-double flowers with a dwarf spreading habit.

The hybrids between C. speciosa and C. japonica are more biddable. The best forms have the brilliance of their japonica parent. C. × superba ‘Rowallane’ AGM has been around since the early years of the last century and it is still a good plant with big bright-red flowers. C. × superba ‘Crimson and Gold’ AGM is a darker red with a gold middle. It is inclined to sucker but makes a good hedge. The Victorian C. × superba ‘Knap Hill Scarlet’ has flame red blooms with orange tones. C. × superba‘Nicoline’ AGM has scarlet flowers followed by fragrant yellow fruits. C. × superba ‘Pink Lady’ AGM has clear pink flowers opening from darker buds. C. × superba‘Lemon and Lime’ has pale greenish-yellow flowers fading to creamy white. C. x superba ‘Cameo’ (d) is a fairly new cultivar and not unlike ‘Geisha Girl’, but the semi-double flowers are a little darker, a peachy pink. It flowers slightly later than most others and the flowers make a particularly effective contrast to the fresh green of the new leaves.

Chaenomeles are relatively trouble free but flower buds may be damaged by hard frosts and are sometimes affected with aphid and brown scale, and the brown-tail and the leaf-miner. In the worst-case scenario, like other members of the Rosaceae family, it is susceptible to the serious bacteria disease fireblight.

Chaenomelescan be grown in the open as a bush on any fertile soil. They prefer neutral conditions but can cope with lime. Grit should be added to heavy clay soils. They can be grown in sun or shade but flower better in sun. They also bear more flowers as well-trained wall shrubs, such as fans or espaliers. Once the horizontal framework is established, prune the side growths back to a couple of buds in summer.

The three species can be grown from seed, sown in autumn, but cultivars will not come true using this method and are best propagated vegetatively. This can be achieved by taking softwood or greenwood cuttings throughout the summer.

Good companion plants include hellebores in shadier spots, and the scented tazetta daffodil Narcissus‘Geranium’ in full sun or part shade. Chaenomeles are good planted with Clematis alpina. ‘Willy’ is a good small-flowered pink partner for C. speciosa ‘Moerloosei’ AGM. ‘Frances Rivis’ is larger and blue. Under the strong reds, the green golds of Euphorbia robbiaeor the slightly more tender E. characias‘Portuguese Velvet’ look good.

Page image: Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Moerloosei’ AGM (Image courtesy of HPS image library)

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