Ark of Taste
Meech’s Prolific Quince
Meech’s Prolific is a historic American variety of the common quince (Cydonia oblonga). It was discovered in Connecticut around the middle of the 19th century and is named after Reverend William W. Meech, who first introduced it as the “Pear-Shaped Orange Quince” in an 1883 botanical article and popularized it under its present name in his definitive book, Quince Culture (1888), where he described it as the “most uniformly prolific of all known varieties.” The great American fruit writer Charles Downing considered Meech’s Prolific a new and distinct variety when it was introduced, and deemed it “worthy of general cultivation.” A 19th century French nursery catalog described this variety as "remarkable for its productiveness, uniformity in size, regularity in bearing, and superior quality. It meets every requirement of a perfect quince."
The trees are vigorous, self-fertile, and have very large and showy white blossoms. According to Reverend Meech, this variety is precocious in bearing, and it is not uncommon for one-year-old trees to blossom in the nursery and occasionally bear fruit to ripeness. The winter hardiness is not listed, but the tree is presumed to be reliably hardy to USDA Zone 5 or 6. The fruit itself is obtusely pyriform (pearlike) in shape and bright golden yellow. Meech describes the fruit as large, up to 18 oz. (525 g) in weight, but averaging 12 to 15 oz. (350 to 437 g), or roughly 17 fruits to the rounded peck. Ken Fern of Plants for a Future in Cornwall describes fruits grown in England as weighing up to 500 grams. The fruit ripens in early October in most locations.
Still a well-known and popular variety among home orchardists and edible plant enthusiasts in England and the Netherlands, Meech’s Prolific is now rare in the United States, where the quince has only recently started to regain some of its former popularity in the marketplace.
Most quinces are highly fragrant, with an odor reminiscent of pineapple, guava, and flowers. Ancient traders claimed that one ripe quince could perfume an entire caravan. The same effect can be experienced today in barns and homes after the fall quince harvest, as the fruits' heady aroma suffuses whatever room it occupies. Meech’s Prolific quince is extremely fragrant. Its strong, sweet fragrance is reminiscent of apples, flowers and vanilla.
This fragrant quality also makes the quince especially appealing when it is cooked and prepared in a number of ways: whether it is stewed slowly in a tagine with meat and dried fruits, or mixed with apples and pears (its close relations) and baked in pies and tarts. Traditionally quinces have been used to make aromatic and tasty preserves, and the English word marmalade is derived from the Portuguese word marmela, meaning quince. When cooked, quince slices are transformed into an attractive shade of rose pink yet retain their shape admirably well. From Spain, with its membrillo (or quince paste, which has recently found favor among US cheese connoisseurs), to Italy France, Great Britain, Morocco, and the Middle East, the quince has won the hearts of untold generations of admirers.
In many respects the quince is a quintessentially slow food. Except for certain “sweet” varieties, it is generally not eaten fresh out of hand, even when perfectly ripe, because of the acidity, astringency, and/or grittiness of the pale yellow flesh. Tasted raw, the Meech’s Prolific is intensely tart, but quick-cooked it has a bright strong taste with a pleasant piney tartness, like a pineapple or mango, with caramel and pear notes. It’s quick-cooked texture is like a very ripe peach, soft and sweet and nicely crisp and it is bright, clear yellow in color. This is an excellent quince variety for preserves or jelly.
Despite these potential drawbacks and the lack of instant taste gratification, the quince has enjoyed, quite literally, a mythic stature since ancient times. Considered native to the Caucasus mountain region in southern Daghestan and Azerbaijan, the quince eventually spread throughout western Asia and the entire Mediterranean region. Its close resemblance to the apple probably means that mentions of “apples” in several well-known classical myths (like that of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides) refer in fact to quinces, not to the cultivated apple that we now recognize. The quince also was identified with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and as such was an important component in traditional Greco-Roman wedding rites. The genus name Cydonia refers to the ancient city of Cydon (modern-day Khania) on the island of Crete, from whence, according to the Roman naturalist Pliny, the quince was carried to Italy and the western Mediterranean. Other classical authors such as Homer, Virgil, Plutarch, Dioscorides, and Columella also wrote about the quince and extolled its virtues.
In North America, the quince was among the first fruits to have been introduced to the new colonies by English settlers. There is a record of quince seeds having been requisitioned by the Massachusetts Company in 1629. In 1648 quinces were mentioned as growing in Virginia, and by 1720 their cultivation was widespread. Varietal names were not well established in those early years, and most quinces were classified either as an “apple” type (roundish) or a “pear” type (pyriform). Many distinct varieties were probably sold under no name, or under the catchall name of Orange, which still persists as a variety name to this day. Reverend Meech himself believed that Meech’s Prolific quince was an improved form of one of the many types of Orange quince in widespread cultivation during the 19th century.
Today, only around 200 acres of quince trees are grown commercially in the United States, and it is considered a little-known specialty fruit. However, quince still plays an extremely important role in the commercial nursery trade as a dwarfing rootstock for pears, many varieties of which are compatible when grafted on quince. Quince trees are naturally semi-dwarfing, usually growing only to around 15 feet in height, and are bushy, making them good edible landscape plants. They require less pruning and maintenance than apples and pears, but are susceptible to some of the same insects and diseases, particularly fire blight. Good location, cultivar selection, and cultural practices help minimize these potential problems.
In addition to its culinary uses, the quince has historically been recognized as an herbal medicine. The fruit’s astringency makes it useful as a digestive aid and to relieve gas, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation. The seeds, when soaked in boiling water, swell up and form a mucilaginous mass that has mildly laxative, astringent, and anti-inflammatory properties; this infusion has been used to treat sore gums, throats, and breasts, as an eye lotion, and to soothe minor burns.
Meech’s Prolific merits inclusion in the US Ark of Taste because it is one of the few quinces still extant that was discovered in this country. Its exact provenance is unknown, but Meech lists the original tree as having been discovered somewhere in Connecticut around the 1850s. Considered a superior variety in its time, Meech’s Prolific is very little known in its native country, though it is still popular in northwestern Europe. Its size, productivity, and excellent taste, however, recommend it to a new generation of Americans who are beginning to rediscover the delights of this useful pome fruit.
Photo courtesy of David Karp