History of Pears
September 13, 2010
- In The Great Book of Pears, Barbara Jeanne Flores opens her pear history, saying, “Native to temperate Europe and Western Asia, pears (Pyrus communis) are one of the two dozen plants know to have been cultivated for over 4,000 years.” Pears probably originated in the South Caucasus, North Persia, or the Middle East.
- Janet Hazen in Pears: A Country Garden Cookbook suggests that pears were migrated into Europe and northern India by Aryan tribes from the Caucasus regions.
- Dried pears have been found in Ice Age cave dwellings excavated in Switzerland.
- Sumerians were the first to write about pears in 2750 B.C., describing a thick paste they made from it with thyme, figs, oil, and ale to be used as a poultice applied to the body.
- The pear was a part of Greek life, appearing in Greek mythology as being sacred to Hera and Aphrodite. Greek poet Homer called pears “the fruit of the gods” in when he lived around 850 B.C. In the 4th Century, Aristotle’s student Theophrastus wrote a detailed report on how to propagate pears.
- The Romans had six varieties of pears being cultivated in 100 BC. Roman Historian Pliny wrote about 40 varieties in 200 AD, cautioning that “pears are harmful to eat raw, but good boiled with honey.” Maybe pears were too hard to eat raw? Anyway, Ben Watson adds that Pliny also stated that “Falernian pears were the best for making pear wine, and Palladius in the fouth century A.D described how to ferment pear juice, which was then called Castomoniale and apparently was esteemed more highly than apple wine by the Romans.”
- Watson agrees with the historian Tacitus that “the Romans appear to have spread the cultivation of pears into Gaul (France) and probably Britain… however, there is no definitive written record of pears in England until after the Norman Conquest of 1066.”
- During the Middle Ages, pears grew well in the warm climates of France and Italy and were considered a luxury as they were primarily grown in castle and monastery gardens.
- Britain established native pears, which was hard and bitter but made excellent perry, unlike the French dessert pears. These pears were sometimes referred to as the Choke Pears.
- Monks planted pear seeds to develop new pear breeds. During the Renaissance, Medici Grand Duke Cosimo II had 209 pear species.
- More pears varieties from France were imported to England by Henry VIII’s fruiter Richard Harris.
- In 1559, the first pear tree, a White Doyenné, was imported to the New World. While it was useful, pears were passed over for the more popular apple, partly because of their propagation by Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman. This is because most pear seeds are sterile, making them more difficult to propagate from seed as Chapman did. Also pears prefer milder climates and do not grow well on America’s East Coast.
- King Louis XIV of France loved Rousselet de Reims pears. The Versailles garden creator La Quintinye also loved pears, and wrote about growing them, having about 100 different varieties, one of which was the ancestor of today’s Comice. Pears at this time were not for the common folk.
- The Belgians began developing pears in the 18th century, developing 400 varieties including the Beurré d’Anjou and the Beurré Bosc we have in supermarkets today.
- Thomas Jefferson planted 1,000 pear, apple, cherry, plum apricot, and quince trees on his Monticello Estate between 1769 and 1814. Jefferson had lived in Paris as a diplomat, where he grew to love pears and brought them back to his estate, though he found them difficult to grow in Virginia’s climate, and found them inferior to Europe’s pears with the exception of the Seckel. Today, Monticello offers tours of the orchards mid-April through October, with fruit tastings scheduled in August.
- Flores tells this interesting story about developing a pear variety, “In , a British schoolmaster named Stair discovered [a] seedling in Berkshire, England. It was popularized by a nurseryman named Williams [and it was named after him]…” In 1797, it was imported by James Carter to be planted on an estate in Massachusetts for Thomas Brewer. “After Enoch Bartlett purchased the estate in 1817, he distributed the pear under his own name, Bartlett. Today, Bartlett is the most widely grown pear in the world and accounts for 70 percent of all United State commercial plantings.”
- Pears on the West Coast of North America took a different route. They were imported by the Spanish into Mexico, and brought north into California, Oregon, and Washington. In 1792, English explorer George Vancouver visited the Mission San Buenaventura garden in California and wrote, “Apples, pears, plums, figs, oranges, peaches and pomegranates… all these were flourishing in the greatest health and perfection though separated from the seaside by only two or three fields of corn” (page 12, Flores).
- After the California Gold Rush, farmers started planting European pears to feed the growing population, creating a boom in the 1800s. The oldest producing pear tree today was planted in 1810 at Mission San Juan Bautista. Markets remained full of local pears until World War II.
- In the mid-nineteenth century, North American East Coast pear orchards were devastated by the introduction of fireblight, probably introduced from Asian ornamentals.
- Flores talks about today’s pears in the United States, saying, “After [World War II], the small easily bruised heritage varieties [of California] were gradually eliminated in favor of a large pear that could be shipped, handled, and had a long shelf life: namely the Bartlett. The inland coastal valley of California, Oregon, and Washington became the largest pear growing area in the United States, growing 90 percent of the pear crop, mostly Bartletts. In the 1950s, the pear pack was destined for fruit cocktail and other syrupy can fillers, but today’s processed pears are more likely to end up as the base for a health juice, a flavored wine, or baby food.”
- Hazen claims that there are over 5,000 domestic pear varieties today grown in the world.
Sources and further readings: