It is thought that pears originated in the Caucasus from where they spread to Europe and Asia and that they were first cultivated more than 4000 years ago.
Both the Ancient Greeks and Romans valued the fruit for its flavour and medicinal properties. They also attributed aphrodisiacal properties to pears and the fruit was consecrated to Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love.
It is probable that pears were cultivated in Britain during the Roman occupation. Although the production of fruit was slow to develop, there is mention in the Domesday Book of old pear trees as boundary markers.
Many varieties of pears were imported from France and the fruit was used mainly for cooking rather than eating raw. The Worcester Black Pear was first recorded growing in the orchards of Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire.
The Warden pear had been bred and became famous for its use in pies. The variety is mentioned in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and the Michaelmas Fair at Bedford was renowned for baked Wardens.
Queen Elizabeth I visited the city of Worcester and upon entering she saw a beautiful pear tree. It impressed her to such an extent that she decided to make the pear the emblem of the city.
At least 64 varieties were being cultivated in England and grafting onto quince rootstock began to replace pear and crab apple rootstocks.
New and improved strains were introduced from what is now Belgium. However, the majority of pears continued to be used for cooking. Dessert pears were grown mainly in private gardens but were unsuitable for commercial cultivation. One exception was the William’s Pear, raised in about 1770 by a schoolmaster in Aldermaston in Berkshire, which became very popular and is still produced on a limited scale today. Another old variety, the Worcester, has the distinction of figuring in the coat-of-arms of the city of Worcester, although this large deep russeted culinary pear has virtually disappeared.
The renowned horticulturist, Thomas Andrew Knight, began to develop pear varieties. The Royal Horticultural Society encouraged pear growing and in 1826 there were 622 varieties in their gardens at Chiswick.
The real breakthrough in dessert varieties took place in 1858 with the introduction into England of the Doyenne du Comice, more commonly known as Comice.
The first significant British pear to be produced by controlled breeding was Fertility in 1875, although this variety is no longer produced commercially.
Conference was introduced in 1894 and together with Comice, quickly overshadowed all other pear varieties. During the latter half of the 20th century, both the sales and production of Comice declined whilst Conference increased in popularity. Today this variety represents more than 90% of UK commercial production.
Since the middle of the 20th century there have been considerable changes in commercial orchards. Tree height has been greatly reduced to facilitate picking from near ground level without the need for ladders.
Today around 8% of all pears sold in the UK are British. Tree spacings have been reduced to increase productivity per hectare and pruning has been altered to allow more light into the centre of trees. The most modern systems are based on plantings of 3000 or more trees per hectare, with posts and wires supporting each row of trees. Irrigation is provided by computer-controlled systems, which also supply precise amounts of liquid fertiliser.