Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: The Brave Little Quince

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday March 18, 2008
Fruit, flowers, and lots of thorns on the Brave Little Quince under the BART tracks on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.
Ron Sullivan
Fruit, flowers, and lots of thorns on the Brave Little Quince under the BART tracks on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.
Fruit, flowers, and lots of thorns on the Brave Little Quince under the BART tracks on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.
Ron Sullivan
Fruit, flowers, and lots of thorns on the Brave Little Quince under the BART tracks on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.

On the median strip under the BART tracks along Martin Luther King Jr. Way, just a few blocks past the city line and into Oakland, there lives a flowering quince I’ve always thought of as The Brave Little Toaster. Aside from the fact that it’s nothing like a toaster at all, I find the name apt.  

This is a shrub that thousands of people must pass every day without noticing at all. It’s huddled up against a big concrete support pylon; it’s only a foot, foot-and-a-half tall; it’s scrubby and clearly neglected. Its branches, like those of most flowering quinces, are tangly and spiny and confused-looking. It’s not even as conspicuous as those dirty, tired-out junipers that a city crew tore out last year, farther down the street.  

I first noticed it at a most inopportune time, while being tailgated in the left lane by some bozo in a Jeep. In the corner of my good eye, I got a flash of yellow from a very odd place, and then I was back to calculating the relative positions, velocity, and likely functional driver-IQ of the three vehicles surrounding me: you know the fear-sharpened brainwork that goes on in the background when you’re on the road. 

But the odd color stuck in my head. The next time I drove past it, I had leisure for a quick look. Amid this grumpy mass of spindly sticks I could see half a dozen perfectly ripe quinces.  

It was only what remains of my good judgment that kept me from slamming on the brakes and fetching enough for a couple of koreshes and tagines then and there. In fact, I never did get around to it. 

Nevertheless I’d marked the spot and from that moment saw the little bush every time I passed it. For years I’ve watched, a flicker at a time like snapshots, as it greened up modestly—it never did look prosperous in its leaves—and shivered in its naked twigs, as it bore a mass of gloriously off-red flowers-most of them within the barbwire protection of those twigs-and then, most improbably, those offerings of big fat quinces.  

Quinces bloom at the tag end of winter, through early spring. Look around: they’re blooming now, and there’s nothing in the landscape to mistake for their bold color, a sort of salmon-red gone all high-saturation. The flowers are tissue-thin petals around a small cheerful yellow center, and they and the coral color contrast with the knuckled, jumbled, spiky dark twigs that bear them.  

They’re traditional décor here for Chinese New Year, and they’re certainly cheerful enough, encouraging to see as the winter grudgingly yields to the year’s turn. 

It’s not a color I’d wear much of, but I like seeing it on quinces. Elizabeth Lawrence, one of my favorite garden writers, didn’t share my opinion: she wrote in her 1942 book A Southern Garden: “Ranging in color from apple blossom to rose, and from palest salmon to deep red, a profusion of delicate and lovely tints, the Japan quince, Cydonia japonica, is seldom met with except in the hideous orange-red in harmony with no other color, possible only with white.” 

In fact, I do agree that the deep coral we see most often looks best against, say, a budding white flowering pear or plum. That’s no reason not to admire such a distinctive shade. The shrub can grow to smallish-tree size, pruned up to a standard. They make great bonsai, with their angular rugged trunks. Also there are dwarf varieties that stay as short as my median-strip chum. If these bear fruit, it’s of the standard fat-apple size; some bonsai artists show it off by way of aesthetic/cognitive dissonance. In fact, if the fruit ripens and falls, they might reattach it with a tiny peg.  

Making a shrub quince look more orderly is simple. Stand at your favorite viewing angle to the quince, and mentally mark its center, as if it were the center of a fan. Keep the branches that fan out from this center, and cut the ones—always at their base, where they spring from another branch!—that contradict the flow, that move toward the center from the outside.  

If you keep the varying lengths of the remaining branches, your quince will have a harmonious balance of order with “wild” randomness. The light and airflow you encourage will keep it healthier too. 

The brave little quince under the BART tracks is currently surrounded by bare dirt. Work crews killed off the grass and ripped out a lot of sick shrubs in that median, and then stopped. I don’t know what “beautification” will happen next, but I suppose the awkward little warrior will be lost in the grand operation. Well, we’re all mortal.