National Geographic : 1951 Sep
Pears and Quinces: Butter and Jelly "IT/THEN you dive into a pear," a fruit Slover once remarked as he tucked in his napkin, "you never know whether you're going to strike water or sand." The great variation in pears sold in our markets-from the softest, juiciest of fruit to one of the hardest and grittiest-can be blamed chiefly on a tiny bacterium with a musical name, Erwinia amylovora. Except for Erwinia, the gritty sand pears probably would not be grown in the United States to any extent. The common pear, Pyrus communis, like its cousin, the apple, seems to have come originally from western Asia and near-by Europe. Like the apple, it was used as food by Stone Age men and improved by the pre-Christian Greeks. The conquering Ro mans carried it with them into the temperate parts of the Old World. When America was discovered, pear cul ture was common throughout Europe, and pear seed and some trees were brought over by the earliest colonists. At first, like the peach and the apple, the pear trees thrived and produced abundantly in the new land. As early as 1771 the famous Prince Nursery on Long Island, greatest of colonial fruit nurs eries, listed 42 varieties of pears. Belgians Breed for Butter Meanwhile in Europe, particularly in France and Belgium, horticulturists were working to produce new and better varieties of pears. In the 18th and 19th centuries many breeders named superior types, though two deserve particular credit. Nicolas Hardenpont (1705 44), a priest in Mons, Belgium, grew quan tities of seedling trees and produced the first of the varieties having the soft, melting flesh that gave the best pears the nickname "butter fruit." Later, Jean Baptiste van Mons (1765-1842), a Leuven, Belgium, physician, developed pear breeding on a large scale and helped popularize some 40 superior types. But as the improved varieties made their appearance in American orchards, so did Erwinia am vlovora. These bacteria invade the bark, roots, and other soft tissues of the tree, causing oozing cankers and giving the infected parts a scorched appearance which accounts for the popular name of the dis ease, fire blight. It kills off large limbs and eventually whole trees. Fire blight was first observed in America as early as 1780, but it was not until a century later that Ir. Thomas Jonathan Burrill, a University of Illinois plant pathologist, worked out the cause. Unfortunately, no one has yet worked out an effective control, and down to the present day pear blight makes growing the high quality "butter" pears of Europe extremely hazardous in most of the United States east of the Rockies. In eastern Asia another kind of pear had developed, P. pyrifolia, hard of flesh and with numerous "sand" or grit cells. These sand pears, still widely grown in China and Japan, reached the United States before 1840, by way of Europe. They proved quite resistant to fire blight, also to the teeth and palates of the consumers. Softer, but Still Sandy Hybrids of sand pears and European varie ties soon appeared, starting as chance seed lings where trees stood adjacent in orchards. The most important of these, the Kieffer, first fruited in 1873. Hybrids are now grown ex tensively in the eastern half of the United States; they are blight-resistant and better to eat than the original sand pears, but still inferior to the best European kinds. In re cent years research has been started to breed better blight-resistant varieties for eastern growers. In the mild, dry-summered valleys of Cali fornia, Oregon, and Washington, the best European varieties grow near to perfection. From here come most of the commercially grown pears used for canning and for sale as fresh fruit-about two-thirds of the annual national crop of 30,000,000 bushels. Mil lions of bushels from these three States have been shipped back to the Low Countries of Europe, whence their ancestors came. Pears are an important crop in all of the temperate parts of Europe. Total production there averages about 100,000,000 bushels a year. France, Germany, Italy, and Switzer land lead in production. In France, particu larly, many pears are made into perry, a fermented pear cider. Argentina and Aus tralia are also among the important produc ing countries. The Sour Quince Makes Good Jelly To most Americans the quince, Cydonia oblonga, is just a name on a jelly jar or a nugget in a fruitcake. Closely related to the pear, it appears to be native to north ern Persia, was known in Greece and Italy long before the Christian Era, and was brought to this country by the earliest colonists. For a time its low, gnarled trees were widely grown in back-yard orchards. It has since fallen into disrepute, so much so that in American slang "quince" denotes a particu larly unpleasant or sour person, usually fe male. A few small commercial plantings sat isfy the steady domestic demand for preserves and flavoring.