There are few things finer than a perfectly ripened pear. We Washingtonians are thus among the luckiest people on earth, because after wide geographical and temporal wandering, the pear seems to have found its true home in our state.
That being so, is it not strange that the pear is not more popular? The question is hardly new. In fact, U.P. Hedrick, in the monumental and beautiful Pears of New York, spends three large pages exploring why, even in 1920, the pear was not more widely eaten.
Given that Washington grows more than 24,000 acres of pears, it would seem that many people do enjoy them. However, this compares to well over 160,000 acres dedicated to apples, and Washington is currently by far the largest pear-growing region in the country.
Apples are, in fact, part of the pear’s problem. The seasons of both, for the most part, coincide. Apples are more direct, both in use and in taste, than the pear, though my point should not be interpreted as disparaging the apple—or the pear, for that matter. Edward Bunyard, author of The Anatomy of Dessert, perhaps the greatest paean to fruit ever composed, wrote that “The pear must be approached, as its feminine nature indicates, with discretion and reverence; it withholds its secrets from the merely hungry.”
The pear, in other words, can be a little intimidating to the uninitiated. How many shoppers have poked a hard pear, wondered how to treat it, and then picked out apples instead, which can be eaten directly from the store or the tree?
Pears just are different. For one thing, unlike apples, they will continue to ripen once plucked from the tree. In fact, if they are allowed to ripen on the tree, most commercial pears will become gritty or “sandy.”
Once past a certain point of development, the pear acquires sclereid or stone cells, says John Fellman, our post-harvest horticulturist. These cells give the ripening fruit structure, as well as a sandy texture. However, if the pear is picked at just the right time, when it is mature, but not ripe, it can be conditioned through cold storage, so that it develops a perfect soft, buttery texture.
Interestingly, that perfect texture comes about as a result of another potential imperfection. Pears, like apples, ripen from the inside out. As the seeds ripen, the tissue senesces, giving off ethylene that ripens everything else. When that core gets too old, it becomes soft and brown.
This is exacerbated by high amounts of carbon dioxide, which inhibits respiration and causes the pear to suffocate. The CO2 does not diffuse well in the pear, as it does in the apple, which has more air space. However, the condition in the pear that inhibits the diffusion, the hydration of the polymers and such of the cell walls, is what gives the pear its silky texture.
I recently read H.B. Tukey’s The Pear and Its Culture, published in 1928. In the 1920s, Tukey introduced dwarfing rootstocks for apples at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station and became horticulture chairman at Michigan State in 1945.
He was the father of Ron Tukey, extension tree-fruit horticulturist at WSU until his death in 1987 and the namesake of the WSU Tukey Orchard. Ron’s brother, Harold Jr., was the director of the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle. Another brother, Loren, an internationally known pomologist and educator, was extension tree-fruit specialist for four decades at Penn State until his death in 1998.
What struck me about the elder Tukey’s book is that not a whole lot has changed regarding pear culture since 1928, at least apparently.
However, says Tim Smith, an Extension horticulturist for Okanagan, Chelan, and Douglas counties, we now live in revolutionary times.
Pear packers have learned from the banana industry. Bananas are also picked green, then ripened with ethylene. For the past couple of years, pears have been treated similarly, with a preconditioning process. In fact, says Smith, pears you buy in the grocery are guaranteed to ripen within a week of your buying them.
Not that they were really all that difficult to ripen before. They just have this mystique of being difficult and not entirely predictable. If your pears haven’t been treated with ethylene in the packing house, just put them in a paper bag when you get home. Or put them in a bag or bowl with a banana, which exudes large amounts of ethylene. The pears will ripen within a few days.
But the greatest revolution is probably coming on the genetic side, says Smith. Amit Dhingra, a genomicist, recently joined the horticulture and landscape architecture department to address any number of genetic issues in fruit, focusing currently on apples, pears, grapes, and cherries.
Pear growers in Washington have singled out a couple of pear issues that they’d like people such as Dhingra to address. First is tree size. Whereas the apple industry has indeed been revolutionized by dwarfing rootstocks, no one has developed a satisfactory dwarfing rootstock for pears. What this means is the trees are not as easily harvested and, most important, take longer to bear.
The other thing Dhingra is addressing is the time to flowering. Pears take several years to flower. Not only is this economically frustrating for growers who plant new stock, it requires of pear breeders the patience of a Zen monk.
Researchers elsewhere recently announced that young apple trees have been induced to flower at four months of age. This means nothing toward commercial bearing. What it does mean is that genetic material can be extracted from that apple and examined for favorable traits, such as resistance and flavor.
Dhingra plans to get pears to do the same—which does not happen through traditional horticultural means. Rather, he employs what he calls CSI, or controlled sport induction. A sport is a mutation that may display a trait better than its parent. He uses gamma radiation to create mutations in the genetic material. Even though useful mutations are rare, those rare instances can offer nice surprises. The ruby red grapefruit, for example, is the result of radiation-induced mutation.
Pears possess an ancient provenance. The genus Pyrus, of which the pear is a part, probably originated in western China. The common pear, in all its thousands of named varieties, has been cultivated and savored in Europe and Asia for centuries. One of the earliest mentions of the pear in Western literature is the passage in the Odyssey where Odysseus lingers in Alcinous’s garden, which grew the “gifts of the gods,” pomegranates, apples, and pears.
Over hundreds of years, the challenge the pear presents to the impatient consumer has for gourmands promised the increased pleasure that follows anticipation. Another trait that sets the pear apart from the apple is that it’s been slow to change, even in its named varieties. The Bartlett, known as the Williams Bon Chretien or Stair pear in Europe, is over 200 years old. It is still the leading commercial pear in Washington.
But increased competition, particularly from China, is pushing the pear industry to think change and variety, and Dhingra hopes to help induce new varieties through his CSI. Developing a new variety currently takes at least 25 to 30 years. Shortening the time to flowering with a favorable mutation would greatly reduce the time it takes to develop a variety.
Currently, there is only one active pear-breeding program in the country, a USDA effort in Virginia. Dhingra says an understanding has been reached, by which the program will move to Washington eventually.
Meanwhile, the dominant commercial varieties in Washington will satisfy. And in spite of my earlier discussion, don’t, says Smith, be too particular about when you eat that pear. A crisp pear can be just as sweet and flavorful as a buttery one. In fact, crisp pears are preferred in Mexico, where many Washington pears are shipped.
The climate that makes Washington ideal for grapes and apples serves pears equally we
ll, says Smith. Cool nights, warm days. Aridity that discourages disease.
But then, as if he’s just remembered, Smith drifts off on a wistful reverie about the first time he tasted pears poached in wine…