I always know when it is Chinese New Year because the huge urn of flowering quince appears in my local grocery store window in California. The store is owned by Chinese immigrants who cut the limbs from their bare, dormant shrubs to bring indoors. When set into warm water in a heated room, the flower buds open prematurely, covering the twigs in lush coral-red blossoms -- a welcome burst of color during a long, dark winter.
Unlike our steadfast Jan. 1 New Year, the Chinese lunar year is based on the second new moon after the November winter solstice. It falls at varying dates from late January into early February. In the legend of this auspicious occasion, a mythological beast would devour their crops until people discovered that it was afraid of the color red and firecrackers. Thus, the celebrations feature crackling explosions and red lanterns, flowers and decorations.
This explains, at least in part, the importance of these New Year celebrations. In California, the bright red blossoms of flowering quince bloom in perfect sequence with the festivities. Quince became a common sight all over San Francisco after the first Chinese immigrants arrived, and its popularity spread throughout the western states wherever Chinese people settled.
That's why I got excited when this year's Spring Meadow Nursery catalog featured cut quince flowers on its cover. I could tell right off that the blossoms were much larger than the usual quince buttons, piquing my interest. They're from a series of new improved varieties developed and introduced by Dr. Thomas Ranney at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Asheville, N.C.
In the past, quince tended to be a rangy, thorny shrub difficult to grow in smaller gardens. When not in bloom, the plants weren't particularly attractive either. This new series solves problems and produces a more colorful plant that competes with other modern flowering shrubs from coast to coast.
Dubbed the Double Take series, it includes three varieties that are distinctive because they are thornless, with flowers as large as those of some groundcover roses. They are described as camellia-like flowers that stud bare stems. These plants are widely available from your local independent garden centers or online.
Double Take Orange Storm offers the true coral that distinguishes the early quince cultivars. Double Take Pink Storm is more true pink, making a lovely cooler hue for pastel compositions using turquoise or sky blue. The Chinese New Year gardener will no doubt enjoy Double Take Scarlet Storm, with dark, velvet-red blooms that stand out crisply against gold and yellow. All feature a soft tuft of buttery stamens at the center. The breeders state they may produce flowers again later in the season, though modestly.
Double Take quince is hardy to USDA climate zone 5. It matures at 4 to 5 feet tall and wide, making it an exceptional hedging choice. Growing a hedge ensures you get plenty of cutting material without spoiling the plant. An old American garden tradition mixes forsythia and quince in a single hedge that bursts into a haze of scarlet and gold. Consider blending your Double Take quince with improved forsythia of similar size such as "Show Off."
These new quince varieties are also an ideal source of color in Asian inspired gardens. They adapt nicely to pruning into beautiful naturalistic forms that resemble in-ground bonsai trees in the early spring when in flower. Such a shrub is exceptional in large ceramic pots for apartment balconies, courtyards, roof gardens and townhouse yards.
It is always a pleasure to see old fashioned shrubs revitalized for the modern garden. With improvements on flowers and disease resistance, they offer the first blaze of color each spring, and many months of carefree gardening to follow.