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A Fond Farewell to a Veteran Quince

View of the Bonnefont Herb Garden at The Met Cloisters overlooking the Hudson River

The young quince settling into her new home. Photo by Andrew Winslow

At The Met Cloisters, we treasure history. For this reason, we are particularly saddened to lose one of our four veteran quince trees.

While our trees receive intensive, organic care, the affectionately termed "weak sister" planted in the southwestern quadrant of the Bonnefont Herb Garden had long taken the brunt of the sharp winds sweeping off the Hudson River. Following a heavy rain last July, a fierce windstorm toppled the tree. Because the soil was saturated from rain, we were able to restore the quince to a vertical position and delay her removal. The damage was done, however: the uprooting had caused significant root and canopy loss. It was clear the little tree's long senescence was drawing to an end.

If, as forester Peter Wohlleben surmises, trees can not only speak to each other but can also "lose their conversational skills," the weak sister appeared to have finally lost her voice. Fortunately we had a plan in place. Thanks to the foresight of former Managing Horticulturist Deirdre Larkin, young quince trees had been planted in the orchard five years ago as eventual replacements for the ageing trees.

Because the quince tree is relatively unknown (in modern gardens) and seldom grown commercially, it is mostly available through small, specialty mail-order nurseries. These nurseries ship plants that are between one and five years old in the early spring, when the young plants are dormant. Most often they arrive bare-root, and the exposed roots are kept moist through the use of various wetting agents such as damp, shredded newspaper.

While this makes for much easier shipping, it is also the best way for a young plant to adapt to new surroundings. Too often, plants grown in containers or transplanted with root balls wrapped in burlap develop bad habits that can be difficult to correct as they mature; a tree planted bare-root during dormancy will establish a healthier root system. Prior to planting, the gardener has the opportunity to examine and prune out girdling roots in favor of straight, anchoring roots. Planting a tree bare-root also ensures there will not be a radically different soil profile between the planting site and the soil surrounding the transplant. Roots will then acclimate to the soil better.

View of the orchard during quince transplant. Photo by Andrew Winslow

Since Assistant Horticulturist Carly Still and consulting arborist Fran Reidy planted the four bare-root quince trees five years ago, one of the young trees showed particular promise. While lacking the mottled bark of the older trees, the young quince had begun to display the gnarled habit (branching structure) so admired in her elders. We decided this was the candidate to succeed the failing tree. The challenge lay in the fact that the young quince was planted outside of the cloister walls, so we would need to hoist the tree over the ramparts.

From historical photographs of The Met Cloisters, we can see that workers took advantage of large construction cranes to lift heavy trees into the gardens. (You can watch footage of a tree being lifted into the gardens during initial construction starting at the 1:45 mark in this MetMedia video.) Without this heavy equipment at our disposal, we decided to bare-root the tree again. After digging a large perimeter and establishing drainage, we used jets of water to wash the soil away from the roots. Then, we were able to easily hoist the little plant over the walls and into its new home. Lastly, to help ease the transplant, we spread soil from the orchard around the newly planted tree.

Plants develop beneficial mycorrhizal associations that facilitate their conversational skills. In order to preserve this mycorrhizal or fungal network, it is recommended to inoculate the new planting site with soil from the previous site. In the presence of her remarkable cousins, we hope this young quince develops her own unique voice over time.

Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World. Vancouver/Berkeley: Greystone Books, 2015.

Related Links
In Season: "Survival and Adaptation: Bonnefont's Corne Field" (June 23, 2017)

In Season: "A Perfect Platform, Part One: Building in Bonnefont" (August 7, 2015)

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