M’Lady’s Luscious Pear
Gardening provides so many avenues of interest down which to wander. The broad avenue of history, for example, which comes to mind as I checked up on the Lady Petre pear I made.
This pear’s most recent history traces back to last year when, after doing a grafting workshop with the Philadelphia Orchard Project at historic Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, I was offered a sprig from the Lady Petre pear tree there. I grow about two dozen varieties of pear, so the last thing I needed was another pear tree. But Lady Petre was special.
John Bartram is often considered “America’s first botanist.” In addition to collecting plants and sharing them with others, mostly in England, he sometimes received plants. Such as the pear seed from England’s Lady Petre, in 1735.
Quoting from the account published in John Loudon’s The Gardener’s Magazine of 1831, the seed was “planted by Mr. Bartram near one end of the dwelling-house, at the edge of a gravel walk, where It has never received any manure or rich earth . . . The tree has never been subject to blight, and has not once failed to bear In the last thirty years; some seasons producing 10 to 12 bushels of fine handsome fruit, which Is in good eating from the middle of September to Christmas. The fruit is always worth from three dollars to five dollars a bushel . . . It Is in the most perfect health, although near a century old.”
Almost a hundred years after that, Ulysses P. Hedrick wrote, in his 1921 tome, The Pears of New York, that “the tree still stands, somewhat stricken with its two centuries, but withal a noble specimen seemingly capable of breasting large blows of age for many years to come.” Alas, the Lady Petre tree finally succumbed to old age in the latter half of the 20th century — but not before someone had the foresight to clip of some branches to graft and make new trees.
As far as the fruit, Mr. Bartram wrote that “The Pear raised from her (Lady Petre’s) seed hath borne a number of the finest relished fruit. I think a better is not in the world.” More specifically, the fruit was described as having flesh that is “white, soft, juicy, melting, like a butter pear; delicious flavour, peculiar, very slightly musky, and vinous.”
And now I have a clone of that original plant and can look forward to tasting the fruit, the first variety of pear to have originated in America. The stated resistance to blight is a plus because blight — fireblight — is still a problem in pear orchards. (And fireblight has its own history: First noted in Highland Falls, NY, and the first recognized bacterial disease of plants.)
Mr. Bartram did state that “the tree was about twenty years old before It produced fruit, and narrowly escaped being cut down as barren.” Pear and apple trees grown from seed will often take 10 or 20 years before bearing fruit — and then the fruits they bear, more often than not, aren’t worth eating. Grafted trees bear sooner, and especially those grafted on dwarfing rootstocks. I made my Lady Petre pear tree by grafting the sprig I got onto a dwarfing rootstock so I’m hoping to be able to report back on the fruit within 5 years.
Not One, But Two, Grafts
My Lady Petre tree is special because not only is it the variety Lady Petre, and not only is it grafted on a dwarfing rootstock, but also because it’s an “interstem tree.”
Dwarfing rootstocks having the advantages of making trees that can be pruned and picked with feet on the ground. Not as obvious is their yielding more fruit per square foot of land because they harvest sunlight so efficiently. They also tend to bear at a younger age.
Many dwarfing rootstocks have restricted or brittle root systems. As a result, dwarf trees generally need first-class soil conditions as well as staking throughout their lifespans, which usually are shorter than full-size trees.
My interstem tree began life as a seedling I grew from a pear seed. Seedling trees are full-size and slow to begin bearing, but have resilient and sturdy roots. A few inches above ground level, I grafted a foot-long stem from a dwarfing rootstock. Atop that dwarfing interstem went the sprig of Lady Petre I had brought home from Philadelphia. That foot-long piece of stem from a dwarfing rootstock is all that’s needed to graft whatever goes above it.
Pears graft easily, so I was able to do both grafts at the same time last year, and have them take.
Many Pines are Nutty
Wandering down a different avenue, gardening can lead us into the future, or, at least, a vision of the future. Embodied, for example, in the 4 inch pot of soil sitting on my greenhouse bench. Poking up out of the soil are two small twigs. And I do mean small, each an inch or so high. Capping each is a small whorl of green needles.
These two twiggy thingies are limber pine (Pinus flexilis) trees that I’m growing from seed. The common and botanical name relate to the plants flexibility; branches can be tied into knots. Looking into the future, these seedlings could grow to 60 feet in height and under good conditions — which would be drier, mountainous regions of western North America — could live over 1,000 years!
I’m growing limber pine for its seeds: pine nuts. All pines’ nuts are edible but only those with large nuts are worth bothering with. This one’s can be 1/3 by 1/2 inches large, although it will be many years before I’ll get to gather these tasty morsels from the two plants.
I’m guessing limber twig pine nuts and Lady Petre pears, both ready for harvest in early fall, will be a tasty combination.