Pear Woodhall in October 2007

A noble pear tree, it reached a height of 22m and a girth of 2.7m when measured in October 2007. It was felled in September 2017 when in full leaf and crop because its main trunk was deemed unsafe. By the time I saw the sawn up timber it was too late to make any good estimate of age. Centre rotted trunks are difficult anyway, especially the seemingly common star shaped brown rot pattern of Rosaceous trees. There were readable sequences of annual rings exceeding 120 years to the red rot centre; some outer-most rings were very close, perhaps another 50 or so years should be added.

I had known the tree for 40 years (we arrived as neighbours in 1979), and it never seemed to change. For me its interest was initially in its size, then, what was it doing in this garden, why was it planted, by whom, how was this vast crop used? Some of these questions were answered in time, by visiting the Suffolk County Council archives, by eating the pears and talking to local people.

The house is a listed farmhouse built around 1500 (flanked by two later and grander farms, Rectory and Abbey Farms), no more than 20 acres and a few rights to graze cattle on the adjacent Great Green; a small farmstead, one of 8 or 9 round the common. A tough unpredictable living, made worse after 1856 when the common was enclosed, and all that the house received was a few extra acres. Some land was sold, probably to survive, until just 4 acres remained. The farm became a smithy, the land worked intensively as a market garden selling produce taken by trap to two nearby market towns: asparagus, soft fruit, pears, apples, damsons, cobnuts and cherries … were documented in the Diss market archive in 1900. Right up to the 1960’s, a sequence of market gardening families made their living here. Its only recorded name other than Smithy was Rayners, the name of its tenant in the 1890’s.

When I first investigated the house was called Woodhall. Still present then were 26 fruit and nut trees, in a great range of ages; a few apples on post WW2 semi-dwarf rootstocks, large cherry trees and apples, an unidentified fig, several cobnut stools, a clump of Shepherd’s bullace. A huge moribund Blenheim Orange, a centuries-old cobnut stool, a multi-stemmed damson, and two old baking pears, one broken down wreck identified as Uvedale St Germain, the other was our 22m giant. The newest family arrived in 1985, the old pear was hung with a tyre on a rope for the children, the entire area gardenified into mown grass below the scatter of trees. The old pear was tied up with wires to support its highest branches by professional arborists. I spent hours trying to identify the fruit and nuts. The large pear tree defied identification. Clearly it was not a melting fleshed buttery pear, but delicious poached in red wine and, even by December, also eaten fresh sliced into a salad! It too was brought into the modern age; I propagated it so that I could have one too.

Woodhall pear

The fruit of pear Woodhall is best harvested late October/November and keeps until early December/early January. This is not a soft sweet beurré pear, but firm fleshed. It can be eaten raw, juicy but crunchy, and is good in salads, excellent cooked in wine, very good roasted with vegetables or meat, or fried as slices and as fritters. It has a thin layer of stone cells near core, but these are easily removed. Most of the crop from the old tree was picked off the ground, but as these pears were still hard when collected, they were rarely badly bruised. Centuries ago a firm fleshed pear like this could have been called a warden or warden pear because it kept a long time and so resembled the Medieval Warden baking pear.

By 2000 it had become clear that big old pear trees were a feature of Suffolk and Norfolk clay-land farmsteads, and that, while these big trees had diverse fruit this same clone was present elsewhere. Propagations of the Woodhall tree increased and new trees proved to be very productive, but pear identification is always difficult due to the lack of well-documented varietal descriptions, so the name Woodhall was considered temporary. By 2016 DNA fingerprinting of the National Fruit Collection’s  (NFC) 350 varieties made possible testing to see if this pear matched any of these. In 2016 the test was carried out via the Fruitid DNA scheme and Woodhall did not match any NFC variety.

Then comes September 2017. The tree was felled as being unsafe; branches always fall from old trees; the trunk was hollow. The owner asked an arborist for an opinion, and as we all know arborists come in different flavours. This one recommended felling it to the ground and grinding out the stump. Another might have said – it’s an ancient and spectacular tree with years of life, make it safe by removing the branches that may split away, reduce to it to a condition that is safe, retaining the main body of tree; hollow trees do not need to be destroyed to be safe. It was after all in full leaf and fruit and only the non-live heart-wood was affected. Its loss removed a small world of dependent wildlife. Its owner felt the loss too!

In the end I asked that the cut stump be left so there is the possibility of a shoot from the base to continue the tree and to save from maceration the aconites and ghost flowers (Ornithogalum nutans), the Suffolk orchard speciality that had been planted around its base. And if no new shoot does arise we have recently grafted trees and can return this same clone to Woodhall.


Paul Read


All that remains of the ancient pear tree in October 2017


This article was originally published in the ‘Orchards East’ Newsletter, Spring 2018′; reproduced here with permission.

The picture of the pear tree in fruit at the top of this piece appears also and as an example of a very old tree, nearly 200 years old, yet regularly fruiting, in The Book of Pears (2015).


Mulberry orchard at Tiptree Farm, Wilkins & Son, makers of Tiptree preserves, Essex. (Photographs by kind permission of Adrian Baggaley and Wilkins & Sons).



Has anyone any experience in growing mulberries that they can share with us?

Conor McGovern



Mulberries stain the skin very easily

There has been a mulberry orchard on the farm at Tiptree for over 100 years and many of the original trees have branches that appear to have collapsed to the ground but still produce fruit.  New mulberry trees have been added to the orchard, which in 2017 yielded sufficient to make a limited edition of Tipree Mulberry Jelly.

Sweet Chestnuts failing to develop

We bought a house 12 years ago with a young sweet chestnut tree (among many others) in the garden. The tree is growing well, appears happy, puts out lots of fruit each year. But only ONE year in 12 have the fruit been usable. Every other year, when you risk your fingers by prising open the spiky ball, the nuts inside have not swelled but are little brown crescents.

I assumed this would improve as the tree matured, but after that one good year it’s gone back to being feeble.

What swells the fruit inside the husk? What’s missing? Water? Warmth? Nutrient?

Other trees in the garden include walnuts, which are happy, and we get several buckets of nuts most years from the grandaddy tree and the two youngsters are starting to produce, and old apple and cherry trees, which also crop well. Our attempts to plant new trees have failed, probably because we are not here enough of the year to water them daily in dry periods, we have given up on new trees for now…

The tree is in the Livradois Forez in central France, at 700m, subject to -15 or lower in cold winters, and +40 at times some summers! For the most part, however, mid twenties and well watered with dry spells.

Chris Comley


Sweet Chestnut tree

Autumn Bliss, one of the best known autumn fruiting raspberry varieties

My Heritage raspberries were planted four or five years ago. My practice has been to cut them to the ground in February but each year I’ve had almost nil raspberries from the whole row. A few have formed but not in time to ripen, except for perhaps about six raspberries by September. I’m now thinking of digging them out and replacing them with a more reliable variety. Before doing that, however, I’m wondering whether anyone has had a more rewarding experience with this variety or has recommendations for a different management system.

I have six varieties of which the autumn fruiting Heritage is the only one not prospering. The other autumn variety is Polka and there are four summer fruiting varieties – Glen Doll, Glen Moy, Octavia and Malling Minerva. The Heritage look fairly healthy but, in my garden, fruit impossibly late. My reading suggests that this was one of the earliest varieties bred for autumn fruiting. I garden in South Lincolnshire.

Janet Galpin

We live in central Saskatchewan, a bit north of Saskatoon, and have some old maples that will need to be removed soon. I am wondering if it is possible to graft fruit trees, like apples, onto the stumps. If it is possible, where can I learn more about this?

L Kanuski

Victorian Rootstocks?

Ancient apple tree growing in North Yorkshire

I have five old apple trees growing on the edges of my replanted orchard. I believe they are the remains of a much older orchard probably planted in the 1850’s or 1860’s. Three of the trees are Yorkshire Cockpit, still prolific croppers, and two are unidentified. All the trees are enormous, the size of parkland trees, and far larger than anything that could be manageable in a productive orchard. I assume that at least three of these trees and probably all, are grafts and not seedlings. Does anyone know what rootstocks were likely to have been used for these trees and if they were intended to be this vigorous?

Nick Burrows

Quince tree showing peeling bark

I have a question about the bark on the quince tree, which I noticed yesterday is coming off in quite large sheets. The wood beneath is smooth. I can see that this has started at the base and is working its way up the main trunk. Would anyone have any idea what the cause is and whether or not it is a natural growth thing (I fear not) or the result of some disease? And if the latter, can it be treated? (I also fear not!) The tree otherwise looks healthy. The leaves are still green and not blighted, although the backs some of the leaves have many tiny black spots on them. There was plenty of blossom in the spring but very little fruit appeared and what there was fell off some time ago. But I put that down to the sort of weather we had in the spring and early summer.

Janet Wolfinden

Quince tree bark