Growing Pear Trees

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by Steve Terrill
Pear trees provide beautiful fall foliage and delicious fruit.

The classic pear has a well-deserved reputation for luscious, even decadent sophistication. Where its close cousin the apple has traditionally been a work-a-day, everyman lunchbox fruit, the pear is aristocratic and refined. In grade school the teacher’s pet may have bought favor with a shiny red polished apple; I’m betting he kept that pear for himself. Whether you enjoy them as fresh fruit in September, spiced pears and served on a cold winter night, or baked pears for a special occasion, pears are simple, versatile and perfect for any occasion.

Easy care

Pear trees are long-lived and easy to grow at home. The trick is in giving them what they want. They prefer deep, well-drained soil with good sun exposure, but they can tolerate wet feet better than most trees. There’s no need to fertilize your pear trees, though they will appreciate a little compost now and then.

Left to their own devices to grow on their own roots (as opposed to grafting), pear trees can reach 70 feet in height and take up to 15 years to fruit. Most pears are grafted onto dwarfing rootstock, either quince or specially bred pear stock. This practice combined with a regular pruning plan can keep your pears at a more manageable 8 to 15 feet tall. Plus, they’ll bear fruit much sooner when grafted, often in under half the time of a seedling tree.

Pears also tolerate neglectful pruning far better than apples or peaches, often bearing heavily with no attention, although they will reward a careful pruning with a vastly improved crop. Some years they bear so heavily, their branches can shatter under the load without support props.

Pears have fewer pest issues than other tree fruit. When is the last time you bit into a pear and found a worm? Or worse, half a worm!? Pears are largely unfazed by most diseases, bearing attractive, quality fruit with little or no spray treatments.

There is one disease that can wreak havoc on a pear tree – the dreaded fire blight – a disease that affects apples, pears and quince. Fire blight is most prevalent in regions with warm, humid spring weather. It enters trees through blossoms, tender new growth, and damaged tissue and is often carried by wind, bees and other insects. From there, the bacterial infection quickly spreads through the tree’s circulatory system. Affected areas become blackened, cracked and wilted, appearing scorched and giving the disease its name. Left unchecked, fire blight can destroy an orchard in a season. For preventative tips, see “Putting Out Fire Blight” below.

Knowing when to harvest pears may be the hardest part of growing them. Pears are odd in that they won’t ripen properly on the tree; they tend to ripen slowly and unevenly, becoming mushy with brown, spoiled cores. However, they will ripen evenly to perfection when harvested at the right time. Pick your pears when they soften a bit at the shoulder and slip easily from the branch, and store them in a cool place. How long they can store depends on the variety. Some last only a week or so, while others can be stored until the following year, lasting until May in some cases.

We are, of course, speaking of the European or Western pear (Pyrus communis), soft and buttery fleshed and, well, pear-shaped. By contrast, Asian pears (P. pyrifolia) are round, crisp fruit, almost like an apple. Asian pears must ripen on the tree for best flavor. There is a third cultivated member of the family, the snow or perry pear (P. nivalis) useful for making alcoholic pear cider, or perry, but not exactly a dessert fruit, being small, hard and sharp in flavor. Pyrus contains about 30 species of wild pears, growing natively across the Northern Hemisphere of the Old World.

The pear, apple and quince are close relatives; so close that apples were once considered to be a member of Pyrus. Botanists have since decided apples need a genus of their own, Malus. Quince are the lone species in the genus Cydonia and are often described as a “country cousin” to pears. They are often used as dwarfing rootstock for pears. Pears and apples can also be grafted together, but the grafts are usually weak and short-lived.

Pear heritage

Archeologists have found pear remains in New Stone Age dig sites across Europe, from Germany and Switzerland through Italy and into Greece. Middle Eastern and Greek orchardists were domesticating pears by 1,000 B.C. Rome carried them across Europe with Her legions. Pears became the darling favorites of French and English nobility. Spaniards, English and French colonists brought pears to the New World, and some of those orchards are still alive today.

America’s pear industry was just hitting its stride in the Northeast shortly after the Revolution when fire blight struck. The disease devastated American pear culture, destroying orchards seemingly overnight on the East Coast. Pear production shifted to the Pacific Northwest, where drier conditions gave pear growers a leg up on fire blight management.

By the mid-1800s, pear breeding and trial programs focused on fire blight resistance. New varieties were regularly released with great hopes of fire blight immunity. Every year, it seemed, another exciting new pear would be trumpeted in newspapers as oblivious to fire blight. None ever quite lived up to the hype. Many of those that could withstand blight received their resistance from Asian pear parents. These varieties grow well in the Deep South, but the cost is often subpar flavor and gritty texture compared to uncrossed varieties.

Today’s pear

While immunity, or even a cure for fire blight has yet to be discovered, there are many pear varieties available today, offering excellent fruit quality and improved, blight resistance. Home growers and even grocery shoppers can choose from many antique varieties. For instance, Bartlett, the pear everyone knows and loves, was discovered in the late 1780s and may be a direct descendant of the Roman Crustumerium variety. Throughout most of the world, it’s known by its English name, Williams Bon Chretien.

That being said, if you’re going to plant a pear tree, why choose a variety you can find in the grocery store? Be adventurous. Try something exciting and exotic. You have plenty of excellent varieties from which to choose. One thing to remember when making your selection: Pears will need cross-pollination. They cannot pollinate themselves. Many sources recommend Bartlett and Winter Nelis as good cross-pollinators.

Beierschmitt is an American antique pear, originating in Iowa from a seed planted in 1900 by Marie Beierschmitt. The fruit is comparable to its parent, the Bartlett, though broader and with a shorter neck. It ripens to a light yellow, with firm, tender aromatic flesh, buttery texture, and no grit. Its flesh is easily bruised, and it’s somewhat susceptible to fire blight. Beierschmitt does well in the Midwest and has been recommended for the upper South. Harvest in late August through mid September.

Another older American antique, Tyson, hails from Pennsylvania. A chance seedling was found in a Jenkintown hedgerow around 1794. A small to medium pear, Tyson ripens to golden-yellow with a red blush. Fruit quality is described as white fleshed, melting and juicy, with notes of lemon and almond. It ripens in a short season from August into September. Tyson displays good fire blight resistance.

For a delicate and elegant treat, consider Seckel, also known as honey, candy or sugar pears. Seckel has been described as “one of the most valuable dessert pears” in Victorian England, even though it likely hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The fruit is small, able to be consumed in three or four bites, melt-in-your mouth, sweet and juicy, with a musky aroma. Fruit begins ripening in September, coloring to maroon or red over a light green background. The fruit can be canned whole and enjoyed as a distinctive treat in late winter. Seckel is fairly resistant to fire blight.

A relative newcomer, Magness was developed in Beltsville, Maryland. The fruit ripens in late September and can be stored up to three months in chilled conditions. A blushing yellow pear, the flesh is sweet and juicy, buttery and pale cream, sometimes compared to Comice or Seckel. Magness does well in the East and Midwest, with good fire blight resistance.

Growers in the Deep South can try Warren, believed to be a cross of Seckel and Comice, and similar to Magness. Warren was discovered in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1976, reportedly on the site of an abandoned research station test plot. The fruit is medium to large, sweet, and juicy with buttery, grit-free flesh and a pale green skin, sometimes blushed with red. Warren is reportedly highly resistant to fire blight, has a low chill requirement, and ripens into October.

For an Old World treat, consider Vicar of Winkfield, a French antique discovered in Fromentau Wood in 1760; it may also be known as Curé. Vicar is a cooking pear and can also be eaten as fresh fruit. The Book of Pears by Joan Morgan describes the fruit quality as sweet and pleasant, with juicy, melting white flesh, but plain and often sharp or astringent. By contrast, The Pears of New York by Ulysses Prentiss Hedrick and George Henry Howe characterizes Vicar as having a strong musky smell, and more or less astringent. Poaching brings out a lemony color and delicate flavor in the flesh. Vicar ripens late and keeps well in storage. It is, however, susceptible to fire blight.

European pears bring a touch of elegance and decadence to any home orchard. All they ask is a place in the sun, some pruning, and patience. Be patient while waiting for them to fruit and patient to harvest, and they will reward you richly and abundantly.

Putting Out Fire Blight

1. Select blight-resistant cultivars on resistant rootstocks. It is true that no variety is truly immune to fire blight, but many are resistant to some degree. This resistance can mean the difference between harvesting crops with careful disease management, and a blackened, dead tree within one season.

2. Manage and control tree growth rates. Fire blight spreads most rapidly on sappy, new growth. Limit fertilizer to a compost topdressing and avoid drastic, heavy pruning, which encourages rapid growth.

3. Use a weak Bordeaux spray or lime copper spray during spring bloom to help limit bacteria load on blossoms. Begin spraying when daytime temperatures reach the mid 60s and nighttime temps reach 50. Spray every four to five days during the bloom.

4. Cut out infected materials immediately. Infected blossoms will look water soaked and wilted before blackening. New shoots will turn a distinctive yellow-orange color before blackening and curling. Cut out all affected growth to at least 10 inches below visible damage. Some sources recommend disinfecting pruners between cuts, using a weak bleach solution or rubbing alcohol. Be aware, bleach solution can quickly rust pruners, and in some cases has been shown to be ineffective.

Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. As Vice President of the Backyard Fruit Growers Planning Committee, he has the privilege and honor of learning from many people passionate about and knowledgeable of many different fruit types.