Thursday, August 30, 2012

Local Fruit (and more local than you think!)

Brian Olszak

Casually leafing through my copy of The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips on a Saturday night (because that’s what Master Gardeners do, of course!), in the section on pears I came upon a particularly interesting find. While European pears, naturally, have found their way to the States from Europe, some pears are found in the wilds of America and cultivated for larger distribution. One of which is the Tyson pear, which was discovered in 1794 in a hedgerow on Jonathan Tyson’s farm in Jenkintown, just north of Philadelphia! This is particularly thrilling for me, having grown up not too far away from this location, in Willow Grove.

A quote on Tyson pears from the preeminent source of American pear knowledge, The Pears of New York, written by Ulysses Prentiss Hendrick in 1921:
An illustration of the pear in question from The Pears of New York

The tree is the most nearly perfect of that of any pear grown in America…. The tree is certainly as hardy as that of any other variety, if not hardier, and resists better than that of any other sort the black scourge of blight. Add to these notable characters large size, great vigor, and fruitfulness, and it is seen that the trees are nearly flawless. (p. 223)

That “black scourge of blight” he’s talking about is none other than fire blight, a particularly destructive bacterial infection to which apples, pears, and even crab apples are quite susceptible to varying degrees, depending on the cultivar. Affected parts of the tree take on a blackened, “burned” look to them, which can spread quickly.

The rub, then, is finding this supposedly delectable pear. After about an hour online research, I could only find two orchard/nurseries that still carry or have recently been known to carry Tyson pears--these are Fedco Seeds and St. Lawrence Nurseries. A lauded and seemingly popular variety in the early 20th century, the economics of large-scale fruit and agricultural production has shifted Tyson pears and many other heirloom varieties into near obscurity, but specialty fruit breeders and nurserymen still carry on the tradition--it's just a matter of finding them! Sometimes it's knowing someone who knows someone else who knows an upstanding nurseryman, but Penn State has a good list of nursery sources for fruit trees, including nurseries that specialize in heirloom varieties, here.  The search goes continues, then.

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