The history, cultivation, and savoring of the European pear, by Debra Knapke, Photo by Carole Topalian
Pliny, in Historia naturalis, says that the pear is the fruit of Venus. Surely its heady perfume and nutty, buttery flavor would have appealed to the goddess of love.
The pears we eat today are attributed to two species: the European pear (Pyrus communis) and the Asian pear (P. pyrifolia). Historical records indicate that these species have been cultivated for approximately 2,000 and 3,000 years respectively. Pears are one of the longer-lived fruit trees, up to 200 years. Their prime fruiting range is significantly less than that, but older pear trees can be quite picturesque.
While I enjoy the crisp crunch of an Asian pear, it is the European pear that holds a place in my heart and diet, and is the focus of this article. Pear butter, baked pears with maple sugar and nutmeg, pear-cranberry pie, fall greens topped with pears, toasted pecans and Maytag blue cheese—is your mouth watering yet?
Ralph Waldo Emerson exaggerated when he said, "There are only 10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat,” but pears are not “keepers” like apples. Once they are ripe, you either need to eat them or preserve them. Pears develop more “stones” around the seeds and the center of the fruit starts to break down as it reaches maturity, so it is best to harvest pears before they are ripe. A clue to determining this point is to watch the lenticels, or dots, on the pear’s skin. When the lenticels begin to darken, pick the pears and allow them to ripen fully on your kitchen counter. You can delay ripening for several days in the refrigerator, but the best flavor develops when pears are not kept cold.
If you decide to grow pears, pick a place in your landscape that is sunny, sheltered from northwest winds, and away from areas that may be salted in the winter. Pears are not salt-tolerant and are harmed by salt run-off from sidewalks and driveways. This is one fruit that will deal with our clay soils, but topdressing with compost is a welcome addition. After planting, pears benefit from a two- to three-inch layer of hardwood mulch over the roots. But do not snug the mulch up to the trunk; think “doughnut hole.” There should be an open area of four to six inches around the trunk. Avoid using high-nitrogen fertilizers as this can promote disease. This is an issue if your tree is close to a lawn that is fertilized with conventional nitrogen-heavy mixes.
Most cultivars are self-sterile, meaning that a flower will not accept the pollen from its own type. There are a few pears that are classified as being self-fertile—especially newer hybrids—but they will produce a larger crop if a different cultivar is present. Therefore it is best to plant at least two different cultivars that bloom in the same time frame (see the sidebar for a list of cultivars).
How to choose between the different cultivars? Obviously, taste is a prime consideration. Second, search for varieties that are recommended for your growing area. Your favorite “market” pear may not grow well in Ohio. Just as important is to plant disease-resistant varieties. Like many cultivated fruits, pears are susceptible to many pests and diseases. The major disease for pears is fire blight. No pear is totally fire-blight-resistant, but some are more resistant than others.
Another consideration is choosing the size of the tree. This will be determined by how much space you have in your landscape, how quickly you want fruit, and whether or not you want to use a ladder to harvest the fruit. Standard pears grow 18 to20-plus feet tall by 12 to13feet wide; dwarfs grow eight to 10 feet tall by six to seven feet wide. Dwarf trees will bear fruit in two to three years; standards will fruit in four to six years. Dwarf trees are easier to harvest, but their roots may be slower to establish and the trees may require staking.
Maintenance centers on using good pruning techniques as the tree matures. There are different techniques that promote good airflow and a structure that can handle the fruit load. Also important is the removal of suckers from the base of the tree and the canopy. It is imperative that you remove all suckers in the root zone. You do not want the grafted rootstock to overtake the desirable fruiting scion. For more information on pruning fruit trees, consult The Fruit Gardener’s Bible by Lewis Hill and Leonard Perry.
May you enjoy the gifts of a pear tree!
Pears: What to Grow & Eat
How do you know a pear is ripe? Gently press the top of the pear by the stem. When it depresses slightly, the pear is ripe. Season: (E) early; (M) mid; (L) late.
Anjou (Buerre d'Anjou) (L) green with a slight red blush when ripe; more fragrant and flavorful than Bartlett—in my opinion; Red Anjou has the same flavor and fragrance profile; more resistant to fire blight.
Bartlett (Williams) (E) the pear everyone knows; often used for canning and canned when under-ripe; when ripe it is golden, sweet, juicy, and fragrant; Red Bartlett has the same flavor and fragrance; highly susceptible to fire blight.
Bosc (M) an heirloom variety; has thicker skin, firmer flesh, and a nutty flavor; good for baking and canning; highly susceptible to fire blight.
Comice (M) often called the Christmas pear as it is most likely the pear in your Christmas gift basket; ripens to a golden color; rich and buttery; pairs beautifully with brie or camembert; susceptible to fire blight.
Harrow Delight (E) very similar to Bartlett, but is fire blight-resistant.
Honeysweet (E) very similar to sweet, buttery Seckel; larger and more resistant to fire blight than Seckel.
Seckel (M to L) small, very sweet and juicy; very productive; must be harvested while unripe or the core deteriorates; more resistant to fire blight.
Starkrimsonâ (E) sport of Clapp’s Favorite (older variety); crimson skin color develops as it ripens; mild flavor and floral fragrance; becoming common in the market; susceptible to fire blight.