When Homer’s brave hero Odysseus enters the glorious palace of Alcinous, he is arrested by the sight of the king’s orchards. The ancient epic poem describes a luxuriant grove of apple, pomegranate, pear, and fig trees. One translation of the poem praises the “pear upon pear waxing ripe” in the orchard, and tells of how Odysseus could only stop and marvel at the display. Indeed, the poem concludes that this decadent abundance of fruit–and in particular, the graceful pear–must be “gifts of the gods.”
True, the pear cannot hope to rival the all-American apple in terms of popularity, but–as the above quote from The Odyssey attests to–its place in the pantheon of iconic fruits could never be questioned. Read on for a taste of pear history, fun facts, and colloquialisms. And be sure to read till the end to learn about an issue that has fruit preservationists claiming that our second favorite pomaceous plant may be in “pear-il.”
Pears are counted among the world’s oldest cultivated fruits. Some sources trace the origin of the species as far back as 5000 BC to the foothills of mountainous Western China. As the pear spread throughout Europe, French and Italian monks took up the task of cultivating new varieties in cloistered monastery gardens. The careful cultivation of dessert pears put the monks’ patience into practice, as each seedling could demand a wait of up to twenty years before yielding any satisfying result. Yet the generations of patient monks who toiled lovingly in the monastery pear orchards were repaid in full for their efforts, as the varieties they developed–particularly during the period of the Renaissance–became prized for their “delicious wine-like flavor and smooth, melting texture.”
Jump ahead in time and across in space to the introduction of the pear to the Americas by early settlers of Washington and Oregon. While colonists had tried previously to plant the pear tree in the east coast colonies, widespread crop blights tragically proved too much for those early orchards. Thankfully, upon its transplantation in the 1800s, the pear thrived in the soil of the Pacific Northwest, and to this day the region produces the best crop in the business.
botany & nutrition
And now for some botanical classification, so that you, dear readers, may understand how the pear’s story fits into the larger family of fruits. Pears, like their close cousins the apple and the quince, are considered pomes, a type of fruit picked from flowering plants of the Rose family. Some pears–like the globular Asian pear–can be very difficult to distinguish from an apple, though the pyriform, or pear-shaped, variety with its elongated neck and bulbous bottom have come to be considered classic.
Pears represent a good source of dietary fiber (about 15% of your recommended daily value) and vitamin C (about 11%). It has also been identified as a hypo-allergenic fruit, a.k.a. it is less likely than other fruits to produce an adverse response. For this reason, pears can be a great place to start for baby’s debut into the fruit-eating world.
The trusty Oxford English Dictionary recognizes three distinct meanings of the word pear-shaped. You are, indubitably, acquainted with the first meaning, which refers to something shaped like a pear, such as a person, a pearl or a pendant. Nothing revolutionary here. The second definition applies the word to a musical or vocal tone, and indicates that the sound is rich, mellow and sonorous. I think we could all agree that Morgan Freeman’s speaking voice is irresistibly pear-shaped. Finally, the OED notes a probably-unfamiliar British colloquialism that uses the word to describe a situation that has gone terribly awry. I’d like to see this idiom catch on in the States and implore those of you reading this to incorporate the usage into your everyday vernacular. Think: “Man, those Wolverines were doing so well, but after Saturday’s game the season is totally pear-shaped.” Or something.
the endangered pear
And now for an important PSA: pear service announcement. A small but growing number of fruit advocates have been bemoaning the demise of the pear’s once rich spectrum of available varieties. While some 3,000 known varieties of pears are cultivated worldwide, current trends in the industry have forced pear producers to grow and sell a dwindling number of types. The giants of the species–namely, Bartlett, Bosc, and d’Anjou–are squeezing out the lesser-known but still beloved varieties such as Keiffer, Clapp’s Favorite and Vermont Beauty. And the issue is not new. In 1957, Henry Harman wrote a heartfelt plea for the salvation of the species entitled, “Why Pear Materials Should be Preserved.” Consider the following excerpt:
“Sources of pear materials, once abundant in this country, are rapidly disappearing. The great collections of varieties built up and maintained by pear fanciers have all but disappeared. Commercial growers who once took pride in growing many varieties of pears now confine their efforts to a few. ”
If this doesn’t just about break your heart, I don’t know what will.