ISSUE 34  |  Chasing Fireflies

Field Guide: Pear Trees

August 25, 2014 6:30 PM

BY Laura Boyle

Pear trees come by their gnarled branches honestly. They date back to pre-historic times, and have spread across Asia, Europe, and beyond. Pear trees compete with apple trees for their prominence in legends and fairy stories, and it’s easy to see why. Fairies belong among their white blossoms, and must love the way the pear tree’s bark subtly changes color as the seasons progress. The blossoms attract pollinators in the spring (think: yellow and black fairies buzzing around to improve your garden).

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Above: Photography by Jim Powell for Gardenista. See more of the free-willed topiary pears at Glendon Hall in Northamptonshire in Garden Visit: At Home with Rosie Bose of Glendon Hall.

There’s another layer of magic to pears. After you’ve spent the entire summer micromanaging every cucumber and tomato baby, it’s a pleasure to simply roll up your sleeves and harvest the fruit. That’s practically all the maintenance an established pear tree needs.

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Above: Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.

If you’d like to start one of these perennial trees, find out from a local nursery which variety will suit your requirements, and buy a year-old plant. If possible, place it on a protected, south-facing slope, and prune it to one central leader in the second spring.

Cheat Sheet

  • Most pears will only ripen after they’re picked. To test for readiness, gently pull the stem into a lateral position; if the pear breaks off easily, it’s ready to pick.
  • To ripen pears, wrap them in newspaper or brown paper and store them in a cool, dark place. 
  • Pear trees come in many sizes, from dwarf to 60 feet tall; choose one that fits your landscape.

Keep It Alive

  • Pear trees can be susceptible to pests, so surround them with companion plants that counteract that: Try clover, african marigolds, nasturtiums, borage, bee balm, beans, or peas. 
  • Pear trees want full sun and an inch of water every week.
  • Hardy in US growing zones 2-8 (plus 9-10 on the west coast).
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Above: Author Benjamin Swett’s favorite Callery pear tree in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. (See photos of it in every season at Required Reading: New York City of Trees.)

Most people seem to inherit their pear tree, rather than plant it themselves. So here’s some advice for maintaining your tree: In spring, prune and fertilize. In summer, water. In fall, harvest and mulch.

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Above: Preserve pears with our easy recipe: See Oven Canning 101: Cardamom Flavored Pears. Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.

Soak pears in wine or brandy for an extra-special fall treat. If you’re serving sliced pears and cheese (yes, please!), drizzle the pears with honey-lemon water to keep them from turning brown.

Looking for companion plants for your pear tree? See our previous Field Guide posts on Alyssum, Crocus, and Thyme.