For centuries, Japan has produced some of the world’s finest floral illustrations. Many show stark simplicity a contorted tree or a few blossoms on a naked winter twig.
Flowers on bare bleak stems look wonderful in real life, too. And Japanese quince, Chaenomeles, is one of the best winter shrubs for that. Japonicas, as they’re sometimes called grow naturally as untidy, sprawling bushes.But, in small or medium gardens, they look prettiest when trained on a wall or fence.
The true Japanese quince, Chaenomeles japonica, not to be confused with the quince trees that bear the edible yellow fruit, has orange-pink flowersproduced in tight clusters.
Its Chinese cousin C. speciosa has spiny stems and crimson or scarlet flowers. In both species, the stamen clusters are gold. Many of the 60's or so garden varieties result from crossing those two to produce C. x superba.
Colours run from creamy or greenish-white through to pink, salmon, scarlet or crimson. Flowering occurs from February or sooner in some years and continues long into spring. The late flowers are accompanied by newly emerged leaves. Almost any soil type suits these rugged, hardy shrubs.
Pests or disease seldom disfigure japonicas, though some have thorns which can take you by surprise. The branches tend to be lanky, and benefit from pruning and training.
And, since flowers appear on previous year’s growth, it’s best to prune immediately after flowering. February is a good month for planting chaenomeles. You’ll then be able to enjoy a few blooms straight away.
As they’re naturally suckering shrubs, it’s fine to buy plants with several basal stems rather than a single trunk. Chaenomeles grow perfectly well free-standing. But, they have straggly growth and sometimes hide their flowers in a tangle of stems. They’re more manageable trained on a wall.
You’ll need strong wires for that, fixed horizontally along the wall and secured with vine-eyes or big nails. Set the wires about 45cm apart and always tie the branches on the outside.
Don’t let stems grow between the wire and wall that causes chafing. As the stems develop, arrange them in a fan to cover the surface as evenly as possible.
Remove any stems that grow outwards from the wall. As your shrub matures, it will develop an even cover. This is easy to say, of course. But in real life the plants may grow awkwardly.
If the branches are more or less flat against the wall, the plant will still look lovely. Pruning time is after flowering or in late spring whichever comes first. Leave it too late and new stems won’t have time to mature. Do it too early and the last blossoms could be lost.
Chaenomeles tolerate partial shade, even on a north-facing wall. An east or west-facing site is excellent, but if you choose a south wall, make sure the roots are shaded or mulched.
As for the choice, six hold the RHS Award of Garden Merit. There are three species of Chaenomeles but plenty of fine cultivars.
My favourite is C. x speciosa Moerloosei aka Apple Blossom whose greenish white flowers are flushed with pink. For its stamen-petal contrast C. x superba Crimson and Gold is a beauty, as is the vibrant Pink Lady. There are doubleflowered kinds, too. These include salmon Geisha Girl, Red Joy and Orange Storm.