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A Brief History of Pears

By Philip McIntosh
Published: March 16, 2022
Key Takeaways

Once established, a pear tree will provide healthy and flavorful fruits for up to 75 years.

They may not be quite as popular as apples, but pears are still a highly regarded and much cultivated fruit. Originating in central Europe and western Asia, pears are now grown in temperature regions around the globe. Pears are members of the genus Pyrus, which is classified in the family Rosaceae. The Rosaceae is a diverse family that includes many other edible fruits such as apples, peaches, apricots, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, and almonds. Other familiar non-food Rosaceae are roses (of course) and photinias. The flowers on a pear tree do resemble those of a rose.

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There are three main species of pear trees in cultivation for their fruit: Pyrus communis, the European pear; Pyrus pyrifolia, the Asian, Chinese, or Nashi pear; and Pyrus X Bretschneideri, a hybrid Chinese pear. From these original species, many cultivars are known (perhaps thousands) but in North America the most familiar varieties would be Bartlett, Bosc, and Anjou. Several others such as Concorde, Forelle, and Starkrimson are less common but may be available in certain regions.

Pears have been around for many millions of years, diverging from close relatives sometime near the end of the Cretaceous period. From that time up to the present, pears have been an important food source for all kinds of fruit-loving animals. Humans took a liking to pears somewhere along the line and there is evidence of human use going back thousands of years. According to one story, in around 5,000 BCE, a Chinese official named Feng Li abandoned his duties to devote himself to the full-time production of pear and other fruit trees by grafting. Why grafting? Growing pears from seeds won’t produce fruit for at least seven years and the fruit are unlikely to be like the parent fruit from which the seeds came (pear seeds, like apple seeds, are genetically heterogenous). For this reason, grafting onto compatible root stock or, less frequently by rooting cuttings, are the preferred methods for propagating valued cultivars while knocking up to several years off the production lead time. Once established, a pear tree can produce for 75 years or more. Like many of its close relatives, pear trees are self-sterile (with minor exceptions), meaning that the pollen from a variety cannot fertilize itself. An outcross with a compatible genetically distinct cultivar is required for fruit development. Not all cultivars make good pollenating pairs.

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The fruit of the pear tree, which is technically a “pome,” is often available year-round because there is usually someplace in the world at any given time that is climatically favorable for fruit production. There is no continent that cannot support pear trees (well, maybe not Antarctica). The United States, southern Canada, and wide swaths of temperate zones in Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa all have good growing areas. China leads the world in pear production by far with Argentina a distant second, followed by Italy, the USA, Turkey, and South Africa.

Pears are occasionally claimed to offer medicinal benefits for a wide variety of conditions but there is little or no evidence to support the claims. Pears contain the soluble fiber pectin which can aid in digestion and possibly provide a slight lowering of cholesterol by binding with it in the digestive tract and reducing its absorption from food. Most people eat pears not for any perceived medicinal benefits, but because they like the crisp texture and tart sweetness when fresh or the soft juicy sweetness when canned. Pears can also be sliced and dried. One medium-sized pear contains about 100 calories and, along with the previously mentioned soluble fiber, is an excellent source of vitamin C. With a small amount of protein, and some iron and potassium thrown in for good measure, a pear makes for a sweet treat as part of anyone’s daily diet of fruit.

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Written by Philip McIntosh | Science & Technology Writer, Teacher

Profile Picture of Philip McIntosh
Philip McIntosh is a science and technology writer with a bachelor’s degree in botany and chemistry and a master’s degree in biological science. During his graduate research, he used hydroponic techniques to grow axenic plants. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he teaches mathematics.

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