Posts Tagged ‘ancient pear tree’

Louise Bonne of Jersey pear used to be planted all over Britain. It arose before 1780 in Normandy and came to England via Jersey in 1820.

We have a very large pear tree on an allotment site in York. It is similar in size to the one on your blog and looks fantastic when in flower. We are wondering how to age it and find out what variety it is. The allotment site dates from 1917 and the pear tree is next to a footpath, which is shown on maps from 1850s but could be present much earlier. The allotment tenant is not very keen on the tree as a lot of the fruit falls from such a great height and is wasted. We hope to find out if the tree has historical significance and plan to help with picking the fruit too. Can you give us any advice?

Sara Robin



Hessle pear, which arose in the village of Hessle near Hull, Yorks; first recorded 1827.


Fruit identification sessions for apples and pears are held all over the country during September and October.

You can turn to the fruit books for descriptions of varieties and submit samples of leaves for DNA fingerprinting.

In Yorkshire, Royal Horticultural Society Garden Harlow Carr, near Harrogate, has fruit identification days and the Northern Fruit Group holds sessions and gives advice.

Brogdale Collections at Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection, identifies fruit by post.

There are a number of reference books you could use:

The Book of Pears by Joan Morgan (2015), illustrated by Elisabeth Dowle and the companion website with photographs of nearly 500 varieties in the Directory section https://www.thebookofpears.fruitforum.net

Pears by Jim Arbury (1997), illustrations by Sally Pinhey

Handbook of Hardy Fruits (1920) vol. I, by Edward Bunyard

The Fruit Manual by Robert Hogg, 1884, reprinted 2002

Apple and pear varieties can also be identified by DNA fingerprinting using the leaves, see Fruit ID website

Fruit Forum

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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).

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