Slices of dried pears have been unearthed in Ice Age cave dwellings in Switzerland.The much-loved pear of the genus Pyrus, native to temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere, has evolved into two main varieties: P. communis, soft-fleshed pears favored by Europeans and North Americans, and P. pyrifolia, crisp-fleshed pears favored by Asians. Spanish schoolchildren still say "Esto es la pera" (This is the pear!) to describe a wonderful experience.
In the 6th century, the Chinese writer Chia Shi-yi in Tsee Ming Yau Su documented pear growing in the previous 1,500 years. The earliest Japanese reference to the pear is from Nihon-shoki (Japanese Book of Records) published in 720. The Japanese word for pear, Nashi, sounds like another Japanese word with different characters meaning "does not exist." The northeastern corner of a property was said to be inhabited by a demon. When a gate had to be made in the northeast corner, a pear tree was planted beside it to ward off evil. The pear flower is on the crest of the ancient Lee dynasty of Korea.
In the 9th century B.C.E., Homer mentions the pear as the "gift of the gods" in "The Odyssey." Theophrastus of Eresos (370-286 B.C.E.) describes wild pears and the growing and grafting of domesticated pears. Augustine (354-430 C.E.) compares his theft of pears, committed when he was an adolescent, to Adam's consuming the forbidden apple to please Eve. Marcus Procius Cato (234-149 B.C.E.) describes six types of pears in his agricultural manual "De Agri Cultura," the oldest remaining treatise written in Latin. Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 B.C.E.) describes grafting and storing pears in "De Re Rustica." Pliny the Elder (23-79 B.C.E.) covers the pear extensively in "Historica Naturalis," published in 77 B.C.E. Charlemagne (742-814 C.E.) is said to have been the first to collect French pears.
Pears in the Renaissance
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) mentions the pear in one of his botanical fables. The French physician Charles Estienne describes 16 types of pears in his agricultural treatise "Seminarium," published in 1536. In 1597, John Gerard, a contemporary of Shakespeare, writes about the fruit in "Of the Pear Tree," the title of a chapter. In "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare writes: "Your virginity, your old virginity, is like one of our French withered pears, it looks ill, it eats dryly." Shakespeare mentions the Warden and the Poperin, two kinds of pears from the era. Pies made with Warden pies are the ancestors of Pear Lorraine, pears cooked in wine.
In the 17th century, French writers and monks described from 67 to 254 varieties of pears. What North Americans call the Bartlett pear can be traced to England in 1770 where it is called the Williams pear after Williams Bon Crétien. In 1867, the French writer André Leroy listed 3,000 names of 900 cultivars of pears.
North American Pears
European settlers brought varieties of European pear trees with them to North America. The oldest living cultivated pear tree, located in Danvers, Mass., is said to have been planted in the mid-17th century by John Endecott, a governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1997, scions from the tree were deposited in the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Ore. Washington state produces most of the pears in North America followed by Oregon, where the pear is the official state fruit.