A Pear By Any Other Name

Meet the overlooked sibling of the pear family, and plant, prune, and enjoy this Asian species in your backyard.

Adobe Stock/utah778

Everyone’s familiar with pears: They’re aromatic and sweet, and they melt in your mouth with each slurping bite. They’re so familiar that their signature shape is, well, pear-shaped; technically, the shape’s name is “pyriform,” which is Latin for “pear-shaped.”

When people picture pears, they may think of European pears. However, there’s another sister in the family: the Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia). In Latin, that means “pear-leafed pear.” (Sometimes botanists have a gift for the obvious.) Asian pears have several other common names, including “apple pears,” “sand pears,” “Korean pears,” “Japanese pears,” and “nashi.”

Unlike their European sisters, Asian pears are round and crunchy, but they’re just as juicy and flavorful. They have surprisingly large fruit, often as big as — if not bigger than — a ripe grapefruit. A few cultivars have flesh sprinkled with small, gritty “stone” cells (hence the common name “sand pear”), but most are grit-free. Asian pears are rarely used in pies or preserves, but instead are eaten fresh out of hand or sliced and added to salads. Asian pears ripen perfectly on the tree and are at their best when left to do so. They’ll finish ripening if they’re picked early, but at the expense of most of their flavor.

Botanists believe both Asian and European pears originated in the same general area of Western Asia: Asian pears in Western China, and European pears in Kazakhstan. While European pears first headed southwest into the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and then north into Europe, Asian pears worked their way east through China and Mongolia, and then into Korea and Japan.

As old as they are, Asian pears are still relatively new arrivals to American shores. While Spanish missionaries and English and French colonists quickly brought European pears to the New World, Asian pears had to wait until the 1850s for Chinese and Japanese immigrants to bring them to the American West. Even now, most people have only seen Asian pears individually wrapped at the supermarket, with confusing names and astonishing prices.

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