Pears are one of the most popular fruit worldwide. This has been true for more than 7,000 years. They are prized for their sweet taste, their versatility and their long storage life. China leads the world in pear growing. In the United States, pears are the official fruit of the state of Oregon and its No. 1 fruit crop. There are many thousands of pear varieties but no known wild pear.
A Chinese diplomat in 5,000 B.C. named Feng Li is said to have abandoned his responsibilities because he became fascinated with pears. He started a business grafting pears and other fruit. This early Chinese strain of pear is called Pyrus communis and is the "mother" of many modern pear varieties. Asian pears were developed from the strain called P. pyrifolia. Early pears were thought to be small, hard, bitter, sour and astringent.
Greek to Roman
Greek and Roman literature lists varieties of pears and their use for wine or cooking. It was recommended that they should not be eaten raw. There is a recipe for spiced stewed pears in a Roman cookbook. In the Greek classic "The Odyssey," Homer described pears as "a gift of the gods." Roman farmers documented their techniques for grafting and cultivating pears. Pears were very valuable along the trading routes of this time because of their long storage life.
Pears became very popular in medieval Europe as a digestive medicine and also a symbol of fecundity. There are records of Henry III of England (1207-1272) receiving a gift of pears shipped from Rochelle, France. Monks were responsible for cultivating many new varieties of pears during the Medieval Ages. The beautifully shaped fruit found their way into many paintings of the Flemish school in the 15th to 17th centuries.
The first settlers to America brought pear trees to grow, but they did not survive an attack of crop blight. Pioneers to Oregon and Washington brought pear trees with them along the Lewis and Clark Trail. They soon found much more favorable growing conditions in the Northwest. The pears they brought were the same varieties that had been cultivated earlier in France and Belgium, prized for their delicate flavor and long storage life.
Today there are three pear species that account for the majority of edible varieties, and there are thousands of variations of these three. China leads the world in pear cultivation, with Italy and the United States ranked second and third. Pears are eaten fresh, canned, dried, as juice and as jam or jelly. They have many nutritional benefits, such as being high in fiber, high in vitamin C and low in calories.