Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Fruit & Nut Trees
Meet the Asian Pears
by Kris Wetherbee
Harvest Asian pears after background color has changed but while fruit is still firm. Ripe fruits break off easily
Perhaps it's no surprise that Asian pears suffer an identity crisis. Are they apples or pears? Like apples, they ripen on the tree and have a crisp, firm texture, but they have juicy, white flesh with the flavor and fragrance of pears. Since their introduction to this country more than a century ago, these fruits -- primarily descendants of two Asian pear species, Pyrus pyrifolia and P. ussuriensis -- have been commonly known as apple pears. They have also been called sand pears, Oriental or Chinese pears, sha li (Chinese for sand pear), and nashi (Japanese for pear).
Asian pears are deliciously sweet and low in acidity, and each variety has a distinctive bouquet. In China, Japan, and Korea, thousands of different varieties are cultivated, and even in this country, a few dozen varieties are commercially available. Among these are a cornucopia of flavors; some, like 'Yoinashi', are as smooth as butterscotch, while others, such as 'Seuri', have the subtleness of apricot. A few are spicy, including 'Shin Li', which has a hint of cinnamon.
The fruits may be smooth and thin-skinned, in colors ranging from moonlight yellow, and yellow-green, to caramel, or they may be russeted shades of these.
Because of Asian pears' increasing popularity, more varieties than ever are available to home gardeners. And that's good news, because Asian pears sold commercially are often picked before they are ripe. Unlike European pears, Asian pears must be tree-ripened for peak flavor and sweetness. Once picked, the fruits will not ripen further. By growing your own, you can decide when the fruit has reached peak flavor.
Although fruit flavor is a major factor when selecting varieties, consider also disease resistance and hardiness, which are determined in large part by the rootstock. As a rule, Asian pears do well in the same places as European pears. They grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 9, though some varieties, such as 'Seuri' and 'Ya Li', are hardy to zone 4. Typical chill requirements range from 300 to 600 hours (for trees to fruit and grow properly, they require a minimum number of hours with temperatures that fall below 45 degrees F. but remain above freezing). 'Hosui', 'Shinseiki', and 'Twentieth Century' are least chill sensitive and are best suited to warmer regions such as zone 9.
While most Asian pears are partially self-fruitful, they'll produce more and larger fruits with cross pollination. Plant more than one variety, or if space is limited, choose a tree that includes several grafted varieties. Although it's a European pear, 'Bartlett' is a good pollinator. Check with the nursery to confirm that the bloom periods coincide and pollen is compatible for the varieties you select.
Before making a decision on a variety, consider its susceptibility to fire blight and bacterial canker, bacterial diseases influenced primarily by weather and prevalent in regions with rainy, humid springs and summers.
Flavor varies depending on climate (summer warmth helps to sweeten flavor) and harvest time. Even water and soil conditions can affect flavor. Many growers agree that adding trace minerals, such as rock dust, to the soil results in better-tasting fruit.
Some varieties may also be better adapted than others to your growing area. In my zone 8 orchard with heavy clay soil, 'Hosui' has never fruited, while 'Shinko' and 'Shin Li' produce abundantly.