Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Japanese Quince

Every year about now I put on a few extra sweaters, check the weather forecast for snow, and go outside to look for.....flowers??!  Yes, that's right: flowers!
Japanese quince flower and flower buds.
It's time for Japanese quince shrubs to flower, and they are a welcome sight on these gray winter days.  Our outdoor classroom's Japanese quince shrubs are by the sidewalk near the entrance to the parking lot.  You can't miss them right now, as they are covered in blooms.
One of our two Japanese quince shrubs.
Japanese quince shrubs have an extremely unusual strategy for finding pollinators.  Their flowers are bee-pollinated, but there are absolutely no bees out today!  However, if you've lived in Middle Tennessee long enough, you've learned that we tend to have the odd warm day here and there throughout the winter.  When the weather warms up, beehives send out scouts to see if anything is blooming.  And for warm January days, Japanese quince have a monopoly on the blooming business, so any bees that are out will pollinate the Japanese quince.
Flower buds on a Japanese quince.
You may have already figured this out, but Japanese quinces are from Japan.  They were brought to the United States as an ornamental and edible plant centuries ago.  In the US, they are a slightly old-fashioned but well-loved garden plant.  You've already discovered their ability to brighten a dark winter day, but they also produce useful fruit, called a quince.  Quinces are relatives of apples and pears, and some types of quinces are well-loved in Asian and European cooking.  The quinces of our Japanese quince shrubs are small, hard and bitter, but they can be used to make excellent jams and jellies.  If these flowers are pollinated, we'll have some quince fruits later in the spring or early summer.  Watch out - Japanese quince shrubs have a few thorns to protect their quinces.
A sedum blooming in January.
There is another strange bloomer at the outdoor classroom right now.  It's called sedum, and it's growing right in the middle of the waterfall above the pond.  Sedums don't usually bloom until later in February or March, so I'm not sure what this little plant is up to.  But plants have variations just like people do.  Where people might have different hair colors, plants might have different blooming times.  If January turns out to be a good time for this sedum to bloom,  it will make lots of seeds and pass the early-blooming trait on to the next generation of sedums.  Next year there will be more early-bloomers.

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