Gene Logsdon and Friends

Our Mysterious Pear Tree

In Gene Logsdon Blog on October 9, 2013 at 10:10 am

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From GENE LOGSDON

Because I am too lazy to keep a daybook, I’m not exactly sure where our mystery pear came from. I used to be in the habit of carrying all kinds of unusual tree seeds around in my pockets or stash little jars of them in the refrigerator (which gained me no points with the missus) or toss loose handfuls in the glove compartment of the car. I had joined the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX) in my wild oats sowing days (sowing wild trees in my case) whose members taught me the fun of keeping an eye out for odd or unusual trees and other plants and starting them from seeds or grafts on my own place. Seeds were a whole lot easier. It was one way to get an orchard without spending any money, but of course the drawback was waiting several years for the tree to bear and then finding the fruit wasn’t as good as from a tree bought at a nursery. Seedling trees don’t always bear fruit true to the parent. But the very chanciness of the situation is what increases the fun of it. Sometimes seedlings bear better than the parent.

Anyway I was in the habit of planting odd tree seeds in the corners of my cold frame just to see if they would germinate. I especially was intent on getting some cherry seedlings started since I had noticed down the road that “wild” cherry seedlings were growing up in a fence row near an old tame cherry tree and were making fairly good fruit. But I planted other seeds in the cold frame too, very carelessly, always believing I would remember and almost always forgetting. So when a seedling came up, I was thinking cherry. By the fifth year, when a couple of fruits appeared, I knew better. A pear! And then I remembered that I had planted a few pear seeds too, from a tree growing wild in our tree grove. How it got in the grove I don’t know, but I think it was an escape from a tree on the neighboring property or perhaps from the pioneer orchard that I knew from old records had grown across the road in the 1800s.

The pears were not the same as those on the wild mother tree, which by now had died. They were nothing great in appearance, more roundish than pear-shaped, dull yellow when ripe with sometimes a bit of a red blush. However the flesh was not the least bit gritty as pears often are, but smooth and buttery and sweeter than our Bartlett nearby. The other weird thing was that the buds at the end of the twigs were very pointed and sharp, sort of like thorns. My sister joked that the tree was a prickly pear.

So what’s going on here? I did a little research and learned that there are some 3000 named varieties of pear and that the fruit dates back to ancient times. History tells of pear forests, just as there are apple forests in Kazakhstan today. My overly-active imagination immediately conjured up managed wild fruit forests all over the countryside someday, one of which might mysteriously bear wildly wonderful buttery pears as big as melons and no prickles.

Pears don’t get enough attention. They are easier to grow without spraying than apples and parry is about as good as cider. A Seckel grows on Carol’s home place in Kentucky that is known from family lore to be over a hundred years old. It is a pathetic thing, half dead now, but it goes right on merrily bearing fruit every year. Carol calls it, as she did as a child “the pear patch.” I’ve grafted it onto one of our trees but for that kind of longevity I should try to get a seedling started. At our age, that sounds a little absurd, but when we were first married our landlady was fond of telling us about her father who planted a pear orchard when he was 70. His friends laughed. At age 90, he was enjoying the fruits of his labor and they weren’t.
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  1. I hate mowing, for a number of reasons. First, it just seems like such a waste of time and fuel, all for the purpose of making grass shorter. Second, because I hate doing it I put it off as long as I can, at which point it would be more appropriately called brush-hogging than lawn mowing, a job that’s even less fun with a little garage sale push mower. Third, when I’m done the yard looks a lot nicer than it did a couple hours before, and for a short while it seems like maybe it was worth it after all.

    Anyway, one benefit of delayed mowing is that the seedling apple and pear trees that I otherwise would have mowed down before I even knew they existed had a chance to grow enough to make their existence known, so now I have a handful each of apple and pear trees to be transplanted next spring. We’ve got three apples and three pears that I would guess are ten years old or so, but I have no idea what varieties they are–nor have I bothered trying to find out. They taste good, and that’s enough for me.

    Learning the right time to pick the pears made a world of difference–they’re not grainy anymore when ripe. The ones we can’t reach eventually ripen and fall, and those that are too far gone to be picked up and eaten are amazing attractors of bees and wasps and other pollinators. I think perry is every bit as good as cider, but we made the mistake last year of extracting the juice via our old lard press. It’s good, if you can look past the taste of iron.

  2. I started thinking about the wonderful campus of Ohio State University while I was reading this. In thinking I realized that I have never seen a fruit tree on campus. This being my second year on campus, I suppose there probably aren’t any. I feel like fruit trees would be a great addition to campus. Students could walk by and grab a pear or apple on their way to class (granted it wouldn’t last very long given the 50000+ students). I’m surprised I had never thought about this given I grew up around farms where there were many fruit trees.

  3. I much prefer a sweet and juicy pear to an apple, although there are some tasty heritage apples too. Some of the crop is rotting on the trees here in the Pacific Northwest: A grower in Oregon could find only 60 pickers when he needed 30 more.

    The small pears that are not perfect for dessert still make one of the best fruit jams there is, and they can also be cooked in syrup and preserved for fruit salads or other desserts. Or cooked fresh in sweetened red wine for another great fall dessert.

  4. Gene you made me feel a whole lot better about my debacle of forgetting what i’ve planted over the last couple of years. I look forward to seeing what grows.

  5. Not far from my home are thousands of acres of commercial orchards, which are irrigated, sprayed, fertilized, and pruned intensively to produce fruit of high quality that is sold all over the world. The amount of fossil fuel and air pollution from frost protection practices to produce such fruit is huge! Essentially all of such fruit is grafted stock.

    However a Mr. Corbett headquartered in England,and evidently with some small holding orchard in France across the channel is or has been making quite a bit of internet YouTube video and also written commentary in regard to growing fruit on its own rootstock instead of grafting. Mr. Corbett claims increased tree vigor and fruit quality but also uses some rather ingenious techniques to keep the trees small enough to harvest without hiring a crane. One of such measures includes coppicing alternative tree rows to allow the trees to regenerate from the roots and while the coppiced trees are re-growing, growing grain or vegetables or forage in the now sunlit open space.

    I’ve tried sticking a sucker from a known variety into the soil in Fall in hopes of mimicking Mr. Corbett’s practice of propagating fruit trees on their own roots, but no luck so far. It works for poplar and willow species which are well known for regenerating after they are coppiced. It probably has something to do with tree hormones. Hazel nuts will coppice but few commercial hazelnut growers practice that to my knowledge, at least in the Pacific Northwest. In contrast the most common practice is cutting off suckers to make a Hazelnut as a single trunk tree form.

    I am rather curious whether others have tried techniques including seeds to generate fruit trees in hopes of getting a tree similar to the parent. I’ve done something similar to what Gene does by tossing fruit tree seeds on the soil and seeing what happens. So far its resulted in some tasty peaches that resemble the parent trees to some extent, but eventually borers and other pests claim the trees.

    Wild fruit trees which are evident in forested moist areas in my region are quite common and surprisingly they often have very good quality fruit similar to the parent variety. What is even more amazing is that they have not been pruned, fertilized or sprayed, yet still produce fruit of which a vast majority is not troubled by the common orchard pests. This could be a result of being in a Forest Environment with all the attendant insect and pest predators although I suspect the presence of wasps, yellow jackets etc. is largely responsible. However the yellow jackets will quite often eat the fruit when it is ripe, leaving behind a skin of apple or pear in the shape of the fruit, but no flesh remains; so its best to harvest the same wild fruit as feasible before the yellow jackets exact their toll. I’ve found a spray on the the fruit or grapes or berries with vegetable PAM used for keeping fried foods from sticking to the pan will keep the wasp/yellow jackets at bay to some extent so I can at least harvest some fruit.

    However, because the powers that be recognize the importance of the commercial fruit industry locally, (This is the home of famous Yakima Valley, Washington State Apples after all) they accept the dogma that wild trees or even un-sprayed backyard trees are a source of pests for commercial orchards so in essence wild or backyard trees that are not sprayed are viewed as an enemy to be destroyed. Sure fruit trees for planting in backyards are a hot commodity at the local nurseries and big-box stores, but if they are not sprayed, the person responsible might get a visit from the tree police.

    So the questions remain: 1) how do the wild trees that manage to survive the tree police manage to produce fruit that isn’t totally devastated by Codling moth and other pests and; 2) because these wild trees produce a fair amount of fruit that is not affected by Codling moth and other pests, are they really the source of pests for commercial orchards they are claimed to be? It would seem to me that an overwhelming third question should be: what mechanisms are at work that allow the wild trees to produce fruit that isn’t infesteded by Codling Moth and other pests and why isn’t this phenomenon a major course of fruit research? Similarly, how do these wild trees often continue to produce fruit when frosts followed by warm days kill domestic fruit unless heroic measures are taken in regard to frost protection? For example because of frost followed by warm days late this past Spring, instead of sixty bushels of fruit, my 30 fruit trees are yielding exactly six apples that are from blooms that were late and managed to escape the frosts.

    Although it would be an absolute blast to experiment with wild seedling orchards or forests or own root propagation as per Mr. Corbett’s methods, for not just fruit for human consumption but for livestock and wildlife as well., the tree police may have strong objections to such a practice. Nevertheless, I dare say poultry, goats, pigs and even cows fattened on fruit and nuts would be very tasty and probably similar to wild game in nutritional value. Would this not be far more sustainable than the current system of food production, which is dependent upon fossil fuels?

    Go for it Gene; keep planting those tree seeds and encouraging your readers to follow suit.

  6. Pears can live an astonishing long time, especially when grown on their own roots.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endicott_Pear_Tree

    I too, enjoy planting seeds. Less expensive than the lottery, even the losers amount to something, and if you plant on 10 foot centers, you can have a unique orchard when you are done.

    This years lottery choice are Potomac pear presumably crossed with Olympic. Time will tell if anything good comes of the marriage.

  7. I’ve got about a dozen apple seedlings to plant out this fall, started last winter or this spring from tasty apples from the store. We shall see how they do. Most are close to 2 feet tall already.

  8. As a child on the farm, my parents made apple butter in a big black kettle. An essential ingredient included “parry” (we simply called it “pear cider”). Family lore also had it that drinking pear cider could cause a fairly violent gastro-intestinal reaction, i.e., uncontrollable diarrhea. I’ve never personally tested this…

  9. Our place was neglected for at least 50 years before we bought it. There are two distinct orchards, about a half mile apart, although calling them orchards may be stretching it a bit. If they were really deliberately planted, I would have though there would be a little more order to the arrangement. Or maybe the planter had been imbibing, as the tree spacing alternates between way too close to rather excessive distances. And one is quite a hike from the house, and so inconvenient to manage and harvest. In addition, we have wild pear, plum and apple trees scattered all over the 180 acres, in spots odd enough that they are likely to be a fruit core tossed after a human snack or where deer, bear or birds evacuated what they had eaten. All of the fruit is good for something, whether it’s eating out of hand, making cider, applesauce, pies or fruit butter. Still, I’d like to know what they are. I can recognize the familiar Red and Yellow Delicious, but that leaves at least a dozen more unidentified. Other than a little pruning for shape, they get no care. We get plenty and so do the wildlife. There’s a lot to be said for the benign neglect method or orcharding…

    • I don’t know if you are active with the cooperative extension agency in your state but every state has one even if they are not visible in your area. One of their missions is to educate the public and in order to do that they do trials and testing with every thing imaginable. To locate your assigned agent, google (your state name) Cooperative Extension and you will be able to find a telephone number and email address to ask questions.

      In Virginia were I live, larger cities/counties have Master Gardeners which usually handle this task. Their training is extensive and very advanced. They have a enormous data base to draw on. They work with experts from all over and have access to state collage and universities, extension agents from not only their zone and state but can connect to other states where your trees might be more common.

      What you will need for their research is pretty simple. If they are local where you can simply have the agent come to you to take a look. If you don’t want to take the time, simply take a photo (pretty close up so they can see the trunk and the branching) and email it to the agent. If possible, take a photo of the leaves, trunk, branches and flowers. They may contact you to ask more questions such as when they bloom, fruit, how tall they grow etc. This information would just help them narrow their search. I bet you will find that they are very eager to tackle the challenge and find answers for you.

  10. There are several pear trees in a fencerow between my neighbor and I that produces an incredible amount of tasty pears. I asked my neighbor about those trees and he did not even know they were there. There is also an abandoned apple orchard down the road that again produces more apples than we can even think of eating. Such wonderful bounty with no work! Perfect. This year a huge crop of volunteer wild stawberries grew in an ungrazed and unmowed area by our chicken coop. They were tiny, delicious, and just needed to be picked. Edible nature is amazing.

  11. I love Pears great eating especially in the late Fall on a cool crisp day.I’ve been randomly planting fruit trees over the farm at different places and fence rows trying to recreate things as they were when I was a young boy growing up.We had pears,apples,cherries,plums and other fruit trees all over the place.Seems farms got away from this way of living and a lot was lost in the process I feel.A friend of mine has gone all over our area and the Shenandoh valley and collected old time apple varieties of all sorts he gave me a dozen different trees last Fall which I planted looking forward to them bearing fruit.

  12. Gene, thanks for mentioning the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX). Our group is still alive and welcoming new members http://www.nafex.org …we have a huge depth and breadth of knowledge about finding, cultivating, and enjoying fruit and welcome folks from beginners to experts. Stop by our FB page and website https://www.facebook.com/groups/21070015101/

  13. Though it’s been a few years ago, I recall there being pears in Carol’s pear patch on your wedding day. Perhaps that’s why one reminds me of the other.

    • Deborah, and that tree is over a hundred years old, according to family history. Gene

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