Where did pears come from?

This article has been updated. Please check our website for the most recent story.
Last Updated: 
February 19, 2003

CENTRAL POINT - The next time you bite into a juicy winter pear, consider its ancestry. Pears, as we know them, have been bred and cultivated for thousands of years. At some point in history, though, there were only wild trees.

Wild forests of fruit trees may seem strange, but this is how tree fruits existed for most of their millions of years of early existence, explained David Sugar, fruit physiologist at Oregon State University's Southern Oregon Experiment Station in Central Point.

The pear species that gave us our common pear varieties - including Bosc, Comice and Bartlett - is known to scientists as Pyrus communis.

"There are no longer any forests of wild pears, but it is believed that these forests once existed on scattered hillsides from western Asia to southern Europe," said Sugar.

The crisp Asian pears that are the principal eating pears of the Orient came from the wild species Pyrus serotina, native to Asia. They have gained popularity in the West.

Ancient Greeks and Romans wrote of early grafting methods and growing techniques a few hundred years B.C. But most varieties were developed in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The juicy and large-fruited pears we know today, such as Bosc and Anjou, originated in France and Belgium. The ancestor of the Bartlett pear, was found in England, and brought to Massachusetts in 1799 as "William's Bon Chretien." The farm was later taken over by Enoch Bartlett, who commercialized it under his own name. Bartlett pears are the most popular pears in the United States.

Thousands of named pear varieties now exist.

"The reason for such diversity is because pear flowers usually require pollen from a different variety of pear in order to make fruit," he said. "Every seedling is potentially a new variety. Pear seeds can be as diverse as human children."

"In order to grow a specific variety, a pear tree must be grafted from a tree of the wanted variety," he added. "So a tree of Bartlett pear, for example, was grafted from a stick that came from a tree grafted with a stick that came from a tree grafted with a stick, etc., back to the original tree, hundreds of years ago."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains many of the pear varieties of the world as part of the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis. Pear seeds of the world are stored in cold vaults in USDA's National Seed Storage Laboratory in Ft. Collins, Colo.

Author: Carol Savonen
Source: David Sugar