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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Asian Pears

About five years ago my husband and I planted two Asian pear trees in our yard. Our motivation was a cross between curiosity and wanting to save some money. Neither one of us had ever tried an Asian pear, but we like other kinds of pears. If you have ever priced Asian pears at the grocery store, they are quite expensive. Our reasoning was if we could grow these expensive pears at home it would be a win-win. We had seen the trees offered from some reputable nurseries that were hardy in our Zone 5b/6a climate, so we took the plunge and planted two trees.

Asian pears are a relatively new addition to U.S. produce departments, but they are in reality an ancient crop. Historically Asian pears have been grown in Japan and China for at least 3,000 years. Chinese immigrants brought Asian pears to the West coast of the U.S. in the 1800s. Most U.S. commercial production of Asian pears remains on the West coast to this day. Asia grows upwards of 500,000 tons of Asian pears, some of which are exported to the U.S.

Asian pears have a different shape, taste and texture than European pears more commonly available, such as Bartlett and D'anjou. They are also harvested completely differently.

European pears are typically harvested unripe, and allowed to ripen at room temperature to a mellow sweet flavor with soft texture. Their shape is what we call "pear-shaped" (how creative!)-- thin on top, thicker on the bottom. If you want to impress your friends and family, the botanical term is pyriform, derived from the genus name for pear, Pyrus. On the other hand, Asian pears are allowed to ripen fully on the tree, and have a sweet and tart flavor. while retaining a crisp texture, much like an apple.

The similarity to apple's texture has led some to nickname the fruit the "apple pear", which creates confusion. It is tempting to assume, judging by the fruit's shape and texture that there must have been some cross-breeding with an apple tree somewhere in its pedigree. But there is no apple ancestry in the Asian pear. They have been selected from the Ussuri Pear (Pyrus ussuriensis) and the Japanese sand pear (Pyrus pyrifolia or serotina).

Asian pears can also be divided into Chinese and Japanese groups based on shape. Those in the Chinese group have a more pyriform shape, while those in the Japanese group are more round and resemble an apple in size and shape. These Japanese types are the ones most likely to be found in your local grocery store.

Asian pears in the Japanese group can be further subdivided according to their skin's color and texture. Some are smooth, and green-yellow in color, while others are "russeted" (think potato) and are rough in texture with a brownish copper color.

There are some special considerations in commercial production of Asian pears that translates to a significantly higher price in the local grocery store. Practically speaking, wherever a grower has to provide more inputs, whether that is labor, land, plants, fertilizer, or pest and disease control, that cost is ultimately passed onto the consumer. As consumers we decide whether it's worth the price.

Asian pear trees put on a lot of fruit. Left untouched, they would be crowded during development, limiting their size. There is also a risk that too many fruits will weigh down a branch enough to break it. In order to grow a fruit to a size large enough to market, the grower must thin the fruit on the tree.

When growing other tree fruits, growers can sometimes spray a chemical on young fruits that causes a percentage of them to drop from the plant, leaving adequate space between those that remain, promoting larger fruits. Unfortunately, this type of spray is not very effective for Asian pears, and thinning is done by hand.

Typically thinning is done twice, once to remove a percentage of flowers, and a second time to remove some of the very young fruits. Having to thin by hand increases the cost of production significantly.

Another factor contributing to cost is that compared to European pear varieties like Bartlett, Asian pears yield less fruits per tree. You might conclude that the solution is to thin less fruits from the Asian pear. Unfortunately, if they are not thinned enough, Asian pears will not grow to an acceptable size for sale. In order to increase Asian pear yield, the grower must have more trees–driving the cost up.

When harvest time comes, Asian pears also need special treatment. Their skins are very prone to bruising and puncturing. No one wants to buy bruised fruit at a premium price. In order to keep the fruits pristine and perfect, they are hand-picked into padded containers. From there, they are handled with special care and transported to a packinghouse where sorters wrap each fruit in bubble wrap or other protective layer and directly place them in shipping boxes. Once again, this process adds to the bottom line.

Asian pears have limited ability to self-pollinate, so multiple cultivars need to be planted in order to produce fruit. However, not all cultivars will cross-pollinate with one another, so do your homework before purchasing. Most nurseries that sell Asian pears will suggest which cultivars cross-pollinate readily.

We did our homework before purchasing our Asian pear trees, deciding on dwarf versions of the cultivars 'New Century' and 'Hosui'. The first five years of growing these trees we only harvested one puny pear. We began to think maybe they were just very difficult to grow, and that was part of why they were so expensive. This year changed our minds.

The trees were loaded with blooms this spring, followed by tons of young fruit. We really should have thinned the fruits at this point, but with the birth of our son this spring we were both a bit distracted and sleep deprived and nothing was thinned. Sometime in June my husband decided to thin the fruits, just by eyeballing them and trying to lighten up the branches which were starting to bow quite noticeably under the weight of the growing pears. He removed two large buckets of pears from the trees.

Just in the last two weeks after it rained two branches broke under the weight of the fruits! It turns out that had either my husband or I researched how to thin the fruits, we would have found we should have thinned them quite a bit more than we did.

Asian pears are borne from short stems along the branches called spurs. In order to have larger fruits and less chance of limb breakage, fruits should be thinned to 1 to 2 fruits per spur.

Next year we will know better, but for now we have hundreds of smallish Asian pears. I picked the ones from the broken branches, and although they are not totally ripe, they still taste good. If they taste this good now, the ones remaining on the tree should be a real treat when they are fully ripe in the next month or so.

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