Pears have come a long way in the 25–65 million years since their evolution in the mountains of western China. By Anna Mouton.
Pears are woody trees and shrubs in the genus Pyrus. No one is sure how many Pyrus species there are — it could be anything between 20 and 80. Part of the confusion stems from the natural tendency of pear species to hybridise.
Genetic studies show that pears fall into two major geographically separated groups: Asian and Occidental.
Asian pears are classed as either pea pears or large-fruited pears. Pea pears are a little like crab apples — grown for their showy blossoms rather than their marble-sized fruit. Cultivation of large-fruited Asian pears began more than 2 500 years ago with written records from China going back at least 1 500 years.
Commercially grown Asian pears are mostly Pyrus pyrifolia hybrids. Their round fruits typically have crisp pulp with a sandy texture. Most Asian pears are produced in Asia — unsurprisingly — but they are also farmed elsewhere.
Asian pears might look suspiciously like apples to many Westerners. Yet they represent nearly three-quarters of the global pear crop.
South Africans are more familiar with so-called European pears — Pyrus communis subspecies communis. These are Occidental pears that are primarily derived from the wild Pyrus communis subspecies pyraster. European pears are pear-shaped and have softer flesh than Asian pears.
A gift of the gods
Written records indicate that pears have been grown in Europe for at least 3 000 years. The Greek poet Homer is best known for composing the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is in the latter that he lists pears among the gifts of the gods.
The ancient Greeks already recognised different pear cultivars and knew that these had to be propagated from cuttings. They were familiar with techniques such as grafting and girdling.
At least forty pear cultivars were known to the Romans by the first century. Pliny the Elder describes the appearance and flavour of these in his Natural History. He thought that pears are indigestible and benefit from boiling with honey.
European pear cultivars had multiplied to several hundred by the Renaissance. By 1597 John Gerard wrote in his herbal that the stock or kindred of pears are not to be numbered — he mentions an acquaintance who has a collection of sixty exceedingly good sorts.
Today there are about 3 000 European pear cultivars of which only 20–35 are grown commercially.
Conference accounted for more than half of European and Williams Bon Chrétien for more than half of American production in 2021–2022. Argentina is the biggest producer of pears in the southern hemisphere. Williams Bon Chrétien and Packham’s Triumph make up 70%–80% of their crop.
Pears come to the Cape
Jan van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company introduced pears to the Cape while establishing a food garden to provision ships. A list of fruit trees planted by 1656 includes pears.
Conditions at the Cape suited the trees. Dutch minister Francois Valentijn visited the Gardens several times between 1685 and 1714. He described a circle of huge pear trees growing in the middle of the main avenue as resembling oaks. Valentijn also commented on the lovely saffron and winter pears and the enormous — albeit watery — bergamots.
One of these trees still survives to blossom every spring. It is the oldest cultivated fruit tree in South Africa and is believed to be a saffron.
Pears soon became a staple of food gardens in the Cape as they were easily preserved for winter consumption. But it took a few hundred years longer for a commercial fruit industry to develop.
The invention of refrigerated shipping enabled the first successful exports of fresh South African peaches to England in 1892. Cecil John Rhodes was the prime minister of the Cape Colony at the time. He immediately appointed a parliamentary committee on fruit culture and export. They identified pears as one of the best fruit types for export.
In 1910 the Cape Colony became part of the Union of South Africa and fruit exports reached 200 000 cases. Pears were the most-exported fruit.
The father of the fruit industry
Many people contributed to the success of the South African fruit industry. But one man — Harry Pickstone — deserves special recognition.
Pickstone was born in England in 1865. His first visit to Africa was as a 19-year-old British rifleman serving in Bechuanaland. He travelled to California in 1888 as part of the gold rush but ended up working on fruit farms.
Four years later Pickstone arrived at the Cape carrying a letter of introduction to Charles Rudd who had earlier started De Beers with Rhodes. This helped Pickstone meet up with Rhodes and convince him to invest in the first South African commercial fruit-tree nursery.
Pickstone subsequently bought the farm Nooitgedacht near Stellenbosch and imported 50 000 fruit trees from California. He later left this nursery to start another nursery near Wellington.
Rhodes and Pickstone continued to collaborate after Rhodes was ousted as prime minister in 1896. Rhodes purchased 29 farms — mostly former wine farms devastated by phylloxera — and converted them to fruit. Steamship companies took notice and began increasing their cold-storage capacity.
Pickstone became the first managing director of the resulting Rhodes Fruit Farms. He was instrumental to its success and this in turn stimulated other farmers to convert to fruit. His other contributions included the supply of quality trees and vines from his nursery and the construction of a large fruit-packing depot as well as a fruit-processing factory.
By 1927 there were 629 505 pear trees recorded in the Western Province. This had grown to 1.8 million in the Western Province and a further 226 668 in the Langkloof by 1970. Williams Bon Chrétien remained the main cultivar and Ceres the main production area throughout this period.
Nowadays South Africa is the second-largest pear producer and exporter in the southern hemisphere and number six in global pear production — Jan van Riebeeck and Harry Pickstone would be proud.
Image: The saffron pear tree in the Company Gardens in Cape Town is nearly 370 years old.
Supplied by Zunaid Allie | City of Cape Town.