I have been tying in a neglected Japanese quince to a wall. Blood flowers from my thorn-pricked fingers. I dislike wearing gloves and avoid doing so most of the time. Touch is essential in a garden – I learn so much about the condition of the soil when pulling weeds and feeling the resistance of the roots and the crumb of the earth through my finger tips. I was walking with a friend through the University Parks in Oxford yesterday, and a propros nothing she said, “Your fingers always remind me of iris rhizomes.” I’ve had more flattering compliments, but there is something pleasing all the same about the image, something chthonic: my hands grasping the soil like roots and gaining strength therein. Just as I have always been healthier and happier when working the earth. My hands bear the scars of my craft, but they are better looking than my feet, which I subject to marathons.
The problem with shrubs or trees recommended for training against a wall is that they would rather not be growing against a wall. They do not grow naturally in a flattened vertical plane and their 360º nature is always trying to assert itself. Chaenomeles is particularly effusive and throws up numerous twisty stems. In some ways it is like the missing link between the blackberry and the rose – all three are ROSEACEAE – and left to its own devices it forms a tangly mound of a shrub. It is so effusive that I have encountered a successfully wall-trained Chaenomeles only once, on a house that also had magnificent Pyracantha ladders scaling its walls. But, the slightest inattention and it is out of hand. Perhaps this is why it is popular as a subject for bonsai in the Far East – it allows the expert to demonstrate excellence in the practice; a craft dedicated to breaking the will of nature.
Chaenomeles japonica is not a quince, although they are related, distantly. I once heard the first part of the name explained as ‘gape apple’ from the Greek, the meles being the apple. The hard, golden fruits are astringent at best, which will be the effect of their high levels of Vitamin C, aka Ascorbic Acid. Allegedly, they can be eaten raw once bletted, which is a term also applied to another fruit of the rose family, the medlar. It means rotted, as far as I can tell. I have always believed that the best consumer of medlars was a pig and the finest way of eating medlars was as pork. Sheep and goats would no doubt enjoy them too. The fruit of Chaenomeles is enticingly fragrant, and being high in pectin it is a fine addition to an apple or crab apple jelly, which can then be enjoyed with a medium hard cheese. Or a nice salty ham.