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.
Growing Asian Pear Trees
Contrary to what those price tags might suggest, Asian pears aren’t a demanding crop. The expense comes from a scarcity of American growers and the fact that Asian pears’ tender flesh bruises easily in shipment. They’re actually easy to grow, thriving in Zones 5 through 9. Their range stretches from the West Coast through the Pacific Northwest, and across the Midwest to the East Coast and South.
Just like their European sisters, Asian pears have simple needs: good airflow, full sun, and decent drainage, in that order. Pears in general can tolerate moister soil conditions than most tree fruit, but still appreciate well-drained soil.
Asian pears grafted to dwarfing rootstock are available in catalogs, but the graft unions tend to be weak, shortening the tree’s lifespan and affecting fruit quality. If possible, select pear trees grafted to P. betulifolia rootstock. This rootstock has the best compatibility for Asian pears and produces a semi-dwarf tree that reaches 15 to 20 feet in height, though careful pruning can keep them shorter. When planting, space Asian pears 15 to 20 feet apart to allow plenty of airflow and sunlight to reach all parts of the trees. This also provides room for a ladder for pruning and harvesting.
Pruning Methods and Styles
As you prune your Asian pear, remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches first, regardless of their placement on the tree. Then, cut out crowded or crossing branches, so that no branches rub against one another. Always try to remove entire branches, rather than trimming branches back. If you do trim a branch, cut it just above an outward- or downward-facing bud. Never trim one pointing vertically or into the tree center, as branches will grow in the direction the bud is pointing. Finally, when you cut off a branch, look for a ridged bark “collar” at its base. Cut the branch off beyond the collar, but don’t cut into the collar; this helps the tree heal.
For the open center and central leader forms, prune in late winter or early spring, when the trees are dormant, but after the wood has thawed. The ideal time to prune is late February to early March, when winter eases its grip and the air warms just enough to make working outside comfortable again. For espalier pruning and training, prune almost exclusively during the summer growth period.
Asian pears are usually pruned in either an open center or central leader form. They’re also excellent candidates for an espalier form, with either vertical or horizontal “cordons” (single stems).
Open center form. Open center pruning allows the maximum airflow in fruit trees by leaving a large, empty section directly in the center of the tree, where the central trunk would’ve grown. This form also guides trees to grow outward rather than upward.
Prune the central trunk out of the tree at about 4 to 5 feet above the ground, leaving a few larger branches. With thin rope, train these branches, or scaffolds, outward from the base to form a vase or goblet shape.
Central leader form. While open center halts the growth of a consistent central trunk, central leader pruning allows the trunk to continue to about 2/3 the desired height of the tree. Instead of having all of the scaffolds originate at roughly the same height as in open center, central leader spreads them out along the height of the trunk.
Train the first scaffold at 4 feet above the ground. Then, train the second scaffold nearly directly opposite the first, and about a foot above it. Arrange the remaining scaffolds evenly around the trunk, with a foot of trunk space between each scaffold. Remove the central leader directly above the last scaffold.
Espalier form. To train a pear tree to an espalier form, build a trellis structure similar to a grape arbor, with two solid support posts holding several horizontal guide wires between them, spaced a foot or so above each other. Build the trellis structure to last, because your espalier will need lifelong support. Allow at least 10 feet of linear wall space for each tree.
Plant each new tree directly in the center of a frame, and tie it loosely to the bottom wire. Prune the top off just above the wire to encourage two or three shoots to grow at about the wire’s level. These will become the arms and leader of the espalier, depending on the form you choose. As the shoots grow, periodically tie them to the wire in the direction you want them to grow. Young, green shoots are flexible and easily directed.
There are many different growth patterns to select for your espalier; Asian pears respond well to all of them, especially the more formal horizontal cordon and vertical cordon forms. Other patterns include the candelabra pattern and the Belgian fence pattern.
Espalier pruning and training is done almost exclusively during the summer growth period. Expect to spend several years training your trees into these forms.
Spurring Spur Formation
Once Asian pear trees have been trained into their forms, your pruning focus will change from structure to spur formation. Pears fruit on short, stubby 1- to 3-year-old branches called “fruiting spurs.” Horizontal growth favors spur production, so hang small weights on vertically growing shoots to encourage them to grow horizontally. If the shoots are excessively long and flexible, then you can carefully flex each one back on itself in a loose knot to encourage spur formation below the knot.
Light summer pruning also helps to encourage spur formation. Beginning in June, pinch desirable shoots back to 5 to 7 buds to encourage new spurs. At the same time, pinch off extra shoots, especially vertical shoots, at their bases by twisting or snapping them; this method carries less risk of new shoots re-growing at the same spot, as opposed to using pruning shears to remove them. Repeat this pruning pattern twice more throughout the summer, stopping in August to allow new growth to harden off before frost.
Plan to do another maintenance pruning in late winter to clean up excess growth or difficult, congested areas. Concentrate on removing vertical growth and opening the tree up for airflow. Take care not to remove too many fruit buds or spurs.
Thinning out excess fruits is just as important as pruning with Asian pear trees. Each fruit bud contains a cluster of blossoms, all of which can easily set fruit. When left to its own will, an Asian pear tree will set far more fruit than it can support, leading to pears the size of golf balls instead of grapefruits. In late May or early June, remove excess pears to space the remaining fruits about 5 inches apart, giving them room and resources to grow big and juicy.
Pests and Diseases
Asian pears have few pests or disease pressures. The most problematic foe is fire blight, a bacterial disease that can quickly destroy apple, quince, and pear trees. Affected branches blacken and curl as if burned with a blowtorch. Infected young shoots also tend to curl over in a distinctive shepherd’s crook shape. If a tree is plagued with fire blight, cut out any infected material, along with at least 12 inches of healthy wood. Sterilize your pruners and saw between each cut using rubbing alcohol and a propane torch. The best prevention is selecting blight-resistant cultivars. (There are no blight-proof cultivars.) A copper spray timed for bud break and blossoming also helps prevent outbreaks.
Other minor pests include codling moths and pear psylla. Control both of these with dormant oil sprays in winter and careful fruit thinning. Luckily, their damage isn’t typically extensive.
Your Perfect Pear
Asian pear cultivars can’t pollinate themselves, so they need another Asian variety to help them fruit. (European pears bloom too early to be candidates.) For example, a ‘Hosui’ pear can’t pollinate another ‘Hosui’ pear, but it can pollinate a ‘Korean Giant’ pear. Consider the following cultivar recommendations.
Tim Philen of Philen Pharms in Thousand Oaks, California says the ‘Hosui’ pear has “the most complex taste in an Asian pear, with hints of fine cognac when fully ripened, and it has a dark-tan overcoat with large, white pores, making it a handsome pear as well.” He also recommends ‘Drippin’ Honey,’ an extraordinarily crisp and delicious pear with a taste overtone of white grapes, because it’s moderately resistant to fire blight. And he praises ‘Dan Bae,’ also known as ‘Korean Giant,’ for its large fruit that features handsomely russeted skin and a rich, sweet flavor — and moderate resistance to fire blight. For excellent fire blight resistance, he recommends ‘Shinko,’ which is rich, crisp, and sweet.
For early-season pears on the East Coast, Ike Kerschner of North Star Orchard in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, suggests ‘Shinsui.’ These trees bear small- to medium-sized fruits with yellow to orange-brown russeting, and a sweet, crisp texture. For midseason, he recommends ‘Raja,’ which bears golden-brown russeted fruit with rich, sweet flavor. And for late season, he prefers ‘Niitaka,’ a large, golden-brown, heavily russeted pear with a mild, sweet flavor.
Asian pears offer a taste and texture that can’t be beat, and one that’s hard to find at a grocery store. They grow well in most orchards, and produce lots of sweet, crisp fruit that stores well for several weeks to several months in cool conditions. They’re handsome trees with beautiful spring blossoms, and above all else, Asian pears taste just as sweet as a pear by any other name.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He’s vice president of the Backyard Fruit Growers, a grassroots group dedicated to helping people grow healthy fruit in their own backyards.