PO Box 2458, Tijeras NM 87059

Mountain Gardens--finding success with plants for the high desert and East Mountains of New Mexico

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Quince is yellow till cooked

My grandmother had a quince bush back in Kentucky, and that was my introduction to this versatile fruit-- her preserves (though the fruit was hard as hell and made a painful thunk when you caught one upside the head). This was western Kentucky, and the winters were fairly mild. I don't remember the bush freezing down, and it had fruit every year. The tree in my daughter's garden is a lovely old thing, and fruits every year too. We got at least a bushel this year despite the bugs, and tried making quince butter and bandoline in addition to the usual jelly and membrillo.

 I borrowed an old book, Quince Culture, from Dwight's NAFEX library, and learned so much! The book was written by W.W.Meech and published in 1888, so I expected it to be more quaint than useful, but all the info has been applicable, and his recipes worked well. It explained why my grandmother had a bush, and my daughter has a tree--there was a lot of interest in the fruit back then; it was rare and costly--there were a number of cultivars "that vary in shape, size, quality, and dates of ripening." Some fruit reached a pound an a half in weight. Very common in the middle east, it may have been Eve's apple, and was called the Cydonian apple by the ancient Greeks. The ancients considered it to have medicinal properties, too, and a quick google reveals it as an ingredient in today's beauty preparations. Scientists are researching it for medical uses--for treating atherosclerosis among others.

Some could be eaten like a "soft, ripe pear." Our's are pretty hard. They have the woody granules that pears have, but so dense around the core that cutting through it requires a good knife. Cooking is a must. Our's are mild and tart.

The fruit has a peach like fuzz that needs to be rubbed off. Another fascinating property is the mucus secreted by the seeds; when you're cleaning out the seed your fingers get tackier and tackier--when you rinse them suddenly they're covered with gel (see the previous post for a pic). I wanted to germinate the seed so I washed them--and washed them, then left them to soak overnight in a bowl of water. That first batch took a lot of rinsing before they went into the frig--then I read the book and discovered a recipe for something called bandoline, a hair preparation used by Gibson girls at the turn of the 19th century. Gotta try something like that. 

If you save the seed to germinate, don't let it dry out (see previous post on seed starting). I put mine in a plastic bag in a handful of moist seed starting mix and put it in the frig. In a few months I'll bring it to 70 F and see what happens.

Squeezo'ing the cooked quince
Luckily we had another bag of fruit. I soaked about half a cup of seed in three cups of water overnight. (Meech said a ratio of 1:50--I guesstimated). It's like a liquidy jello, not disgusting (like mucus). I strained it and poured it into a sprayer. I used it after washing my hair, combing it through wet, crunching the curls as usual, and left it to dry naturally. My hair was soft, not sticky at all (a problem with lots of commercial preps for curly hair), and held the curl without frizzing. And I've used it for a couple of weeks now with no disasters. I froze the extra gel in ice cube trays because I didn't want to add the alcohol Meech recommended to keep it from going off. I probably won't have to buy my usual stuff for months. Pretty cool!

Another interesting thing about the seed is how it's packaged. Like apple seed, it circles the center of the core, encapsulated in five compartments that hold a lot, so one quince might yield 50 seed. The neat thing was even though bugs or rot penetrated the core, there were usually at least two compartments with unspoiled seed. We only lost a couple of quinces entire. With most of them we could we cut around the bad spots. Quince will keep well in a cool dry place, but pick unblemished ones to store. Look for frass around the blossom end even on fruits that appear perfect. 

We made the jelly first, chopping the peeled fruit in the vitamix, then hanging it in a jelly bag (old pillowcase) overnight. We canned the juice in the usual way. The only trick to remember is do NOT add the sugar until the juice is ready for the pectin (jams and butter, too), and cook in a stainless or copper kettle to develop that jewel like red color. 
After trying a variety of labor intensive ways of prepping the fruit (mostly in an effort to keep the seed whole), we cut away chunks of meat till the seed core was separated out. Then the whole mess went onto the stove with some added water to cook down, peel and all. The peel is high in pectin. When the fruit was cooked soft, I ran it through the Squeezo, a grinder like machine that cranks peel and seed out one side, and juice and pulp out the other, btw the easiest way to do tomatoes. I added cinnamon, nutmeg, and a little allspice--well a lot really--to taste for the batch of quince butter. I didn't add quite as much sugar as I would have for apple butter because I quite liked that spicy tartness. Didn't spice the jam, and sweetened more--for the kiddos.

Membrillo, or dulce de membrillo, aka quince paste, took the most prep time. The fruit is prepared adding lemon juice, and vanilla. Some recipes use shreds of lemon peel or other spices. The fruit is cooked with sugar until it reaches a deep red color, and then it gets poured into a parchment lined sheet pan, then goes into a low oven, 125-200 F depending on your oven. My 1951 Roper requires a close eye. The point is to dry the gel till it stands; most people pour it to a depth of about an inch. Our's was shallower, and dried faster. When the membrillo is cool, it can be cut into squares and wrapped in parchment. It will make a nice Christmas present with some of the jam, and a bottle of prickly pear jelly! 

Membrillo is traditionally served with manchego, but I like it with cream cheese--on celery, toast, and any other way you'd like to try it.

We also made a quince ratifia, but that's another post...

Quince Culture by Meech is a free download at  

Bandoline and the Gibson Girl at 
Wrapping membrillo

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Seed Starting--The Tough Ones

I  made a short presentation on seed starting at the last New Mexico Fruit Explorers meeting. I have since found my notes (!) and am going to take this opportunity to round things out.
Cleaning quince seed

Anyone can start veggie seeds with little difficulty. We've been selecting them to be reliable and easy for thousands of years, but today there's a lot of new interest in growing fruit and native perennials from seed--and these seeds can be tricky. 

Quince "slime" is good for skin--who knew?
Cleaning American persimmons
Seven days later

ALL plant seeds have some kind of inhibition mechanism that prevents germination, most have two, and some have more. Temperature, light, day length, moisture and any combination of these are triggers for germination. People, even professionals, gather seed and dry it carefully without realizing that half of all plants have seed that dies when it dries. This seed must be stored moist; some cannot be stored at all and must be germinated immediately.

To break inhibition seed must variously be washed, soaked, abraded, treated with vinegar or gibberellic acid--or none of the above. Some seed must be burned to germinate, some need to be eaten and "passed." Some seed requires oscillating temps over a period of years--think spring, summer, winter, over and over. Some can be chilled (vernalized) in the frig, some have to go through it au naturel. 

Any seed encased in pulp must be cleaned and washed. The pulp contains chemicals that prevent germination. Consider that in the wild fruits get eaten, or lie in leaf mold, experiencing rain, cold, etc. Some just need a quick rinse. The persimmon (pictured) took hours to separate from the pulp, and then was washed every day for a week, before going into a plastic bag of moist soil mix. Then it went into the frig at 40 F for about three months, and will be brought out to germinate at 70 F. I'll need to check it periodically because many seeds will start to germinate in the frig. I started a native viburnum two years ago, and it's just starting to germinate after several sessions in the frig. A native bane berry gathered in the wild and immediately stored moist in the frig germinated half a dozen seedlings in a matter of weeks, then nothing. After a return to the frig, then back out in 70 F, more seedlings emerged after two years.  So unless sources advise otherwise, always trial fresh seed immediately, even some like columbine or delphinium that usually require vernalization.

Another tricky thing some plants do--the radicle, the place where the root first emerges, germinates, then goes dormant until temps warm. You won't see top growth for six months or more. So be patient.  If I've given up, I'll dump seed into a cold frame, and have often been surprised.

Osage orange
Some plants set huge quantities of seed, most of which is non-viable. There is no embryo inside the seed coat, or it may not have matured. I gathered hundreds of the native Big Tooth maple, and perhaps six germinated. Native sumac may have only 50% viability. Some seeds are difficult to identify; I bought seed at a garden club sale, and there was no seed in the packet despite the entire flower head having been included. Seed is like snowflakes--no two are alike, from featureless specks the size of dust, to little hand grenades like the four o'clock, to enormous oblongs like the mango. There are millions of photos of seed online; make sure you get the right part of the plant.

One of the names most referred to at seed starting sources is Norman Deno, a professor who tested thousands of plant seeds for their optimum germination. In his book, he gives concise directions on starting many difficult plants. From his book, I learned that the American persimmon may continue to exude even after being washed for seven days. I learned that it germinates at 40-70 (50 % germinates in one to four weeks following a period of 40F with a period of 70 F. But outdoor treatment was fatal. 

Its good to know what cultivar you have--I'm still dithering over some buckthorn seed (he lists three), but which do i have? His book lists findings for all the seed he tested, and is available as a free download (see resources below).

Seed Germination Theory and Practice, Norman Deno--free download available at naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/41278/PDF--my first go to.

Prairie Moon Nursery--prairie moon.com  --Their catalog has a wonderful code for germination for all their native seeds, and great cultural planting instructions that aren't readily available elsewhere.

jlhudsonseeds.net --good starting and cultural info.

Seed Savers Exchange--seedsavers.org

theseedsite.co.uk  --UK site with a little bit of everything from photos to a junior seed site.

http://www.hardyplants.com/A.htm --from A to Z, a line or two of the most important bits.