Plant 254

Pyrus communis L. (Rosaceae)

European pear

The European pear is distributed through Europe, northern Turkey and the Caucuses. However, its natural range is difficult to determine because the fruit has been part of human diets since before the Neolithic. The pear, second only to the apple in its importance as a temperate fruit, is eaten fresh or preserved, or brewed into perry. In 2016, more than 27 million tonnes of pears were grown worldwide; approximately one third were European pear.

As traditionally circumscribed, Pyrus comprises about 30 species distributed from the Atlantic coast of Europe to the Pacific coast of Asia. Controversially, Pyrus has recently been redefined according to Carolus Linnaeus's 1753 concept of the genus; it could now include hundreds of species traditionally included in genera such as Malus, Sorbus and Cotoneaster.

There are many similarities between apples and pears. Their fruits are technically pomes, a false fruit formed by expansion of the flower stalk ('flesh') around the mature ovary ('core'). They only produce seed when genetically different individuals cross, meaning specific cultivars must be propagated by grafting. However, European pears often have a distinctive shape with a gritty flesh. The 'grit' is because of cells with very thick, hardened walls ('stone cells').

Hundreds of named pear cultivars have been described, which vary in features such as shape, colour, flavour, texture and keeping qualities. Pear variation and cultivation was described by classical authors such as Theophrastus and Pliny. Pears have been cultivated in Britain for centuries, with claims that individual trees on former monastic sites may be more than 600 years old.

The European pear is closely related to two other European and western Asian wild pears, with which it readily hybridises: Pyrus caucasica, native to the area around the Black Sea; and Pyrus pyraster, native to regions further west. The domesticated European pear was probably originally selected from among these crosses. The complexity of the patterns of morphological and genetic variation, combined with high levels of gene flow, makes understanding the process and place of European pear domestication challenging. Other Pyrus species were domesticated in East Asia.

Pear wood is used for detailed carving, although one late-nineteenth-century commentator dismissed it as 'only adapted to coarse designs'. In Oxford, the official chair of the Sherardian Professor of Botany is made from pear wood, harvested from a tree said to have been planted in the Botanic Garden by Jacob Bobart the Elder in the seventeenth century.

Further reading

Volk GM et al. 2006. Diversity of wild Pyrus communis based on microsatellite analyses. Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science 131: 408-417.

Zheng X et al. 2014. Phylogeny and evolutionary histories of Pyrus L. revealed by phylogenetic trees and networks based on data from multiple DNA sequences. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 80: 54-65.

Zohary D et al. 2013. Domestication of plants in the Old World. Oxford University Press.

Stephen Harris