Imagine if Willy Wonka had been in charge of fruit trees, rather than confectionary. The flavours and textures he would have created. Instead of Everlasting Gobstoppers, Hair Toffee and Magic Chewing Gum, we might have had Self Cubing Pineapple, Chocolate Orange Trees or even straight bananas. (I originally wrote this at the time of Brexit!). However Mother Nature is more than a match for Roald Dahl’s fictional hero and the subject of this article is one of her stranger, but also one of her more delicious creations - the Nashi Pear.
If you are European, the first time you bite into a Nashi or Asian pear, you’ll get a big surprise. The small flat round fruit are generally yellow or light brown, some have some light russeting on the skin , so they look almost like an Egremont Russet. The texture is also like an apple, crisp and full of juice, but the flavour is pure pear, sweet and with a hint of honey. It certainly plays with your senses.
You might see these pears occasionally in supermarkets, as they are traditionally offered as gifts at Chinese New Year. They can be called Asian Pears, Nashi (the Japanese word for ‘pear’), crunch pears or even apple pears. They are derived from the species Pyrus pyrifolia, a native of Japan, where the Nashi pear has been cultivated for almost 2000 years. There are hundreds of named cultivars, but you will be lucky to find more than a few listed in nurserymen’s catalogues. They are worth seeking out, for they make fine fruit trees with far fewer drawbacks than European pears.
Like a traditional pear tree, Nashi prefer soil that is generally ph neutral and is moisture retentive (although not water-logged!). They will need at least half a day of full sun in order for the fruit to ripen, and as ever, don’t plant in a frost pocket as they are some of the earliest trees in the orchard to produce blossom. They are partially self-fertile, so even a single tree will set some fruit, but crops will be much better if another pear (either Nashi or European) is within a 200m radius.
Once huge advantage is than Asian pears are extremely precocious, often fruiting in only their third year. Contrast with most European pears, where the wait can be at least twice that. ‘Pears for your heirs’ is the saying... well not if you plant an Asian pear! Here at the nursery we regularly see three year old trees, less than 1.5m tall, dripping with fruit, whilst the rows of Conference and Williams trees are devoid of a single fruit. In fact the Asian pear trees can set so much fruit that it is a good idea to thin the crop early in the season, almost while still in blossom. This means that the remaining fruit will get to its full size and ripen much better. Heavy thinning will also avoid the tree becoming biennial, and having to take a year ‘off’ in order to restore energy.
Pruning is also much the same as for a European pear - generally aiming to create an open ‘bowl’ shape. With a young tree the best time to prune is in mid-April when growth has just started. Reduce laterals by about a third, pruning to just above a bud to encourage a secondary branch framework. After a few years it is best to switch to traditional winter pruning, removing dead or diseased branches and pruning out completely any vigorous upright growth. Summer pruning can also be used on mature trees to contain growth if necessary - simply cut off all the new growth the tree has put on that year, leaving just one new bud.
Asian pear trees are offered on both dwarfing rootstocks (generally Quince A or Quince C) or on a vigorous stock such as Seedling Pear. I much prefer these trees on Seedling Pear rootstock - they can easily be kept in check with pruning, and the extra vigour helps the tree in less forgiving sites. Even on a vigorous rootstock, they still fruit at a young age and and can be kept at a manageable height of 3m or so. Dwarfing rootstocks can produce stunted trees and pore crops in all but the most auspicious of conditions.
Pests and Diseases.
More good news here - Nashi pears are generally much less prone to problems than their European cousins (as covered in last months article). They remain relatively untouched by pear rust and pear leaf blister mite, although fireblight can be a problem especially in the south of the U.K. prune out any affected stems as soon as they are spotted, and remember to disinfect your secateurs after very pruning cut. Fireblight is also more of a problem on fresh lush growth, so avoid feeds with nitrogen in or mulches of manure, as these will stimulate susceptible young growth.
Asian pears can suffer from iron and magnesium deficiencies. It’s often hard to tell these apart, as the symptoms are extremely similar - a yellowing of the leaves between the veins. This can be easily cured by applying a small amount of Epsom Salts ( magnesium), along with a feed for ericaceous plants (containing iron). An occasional feed with a foliar spray containing seaweed would also be beneficial, perhaps twice during the growing season.
European pears are famous (or perhaps infamous) for the difficulty in eating them perfectly ripe. Many varieties are still hard and unyielding when picked, and must be watched like a hawk while they transform silently in the fruit bowl from something you could knock nails in with, into the perfect fruit for eating. No such problems for Nashi pears - leave on the tree for as long as possible, and wait for a slight change in colour to a light orange, and they will be perfect. The good news is that most varieties can be stored for at least two months in the salad drawer of the fridge.
Shinko - produces larger fruits than most others, round, fully covered in a golden-brown russet, superb flavour.
Koshui - medium sized fruit, produced quite early in the season. Sweet, juicy and absolutely delicious.
Hosui - originated in Japan in 1972, the name translates as ‘Abundant Juice’, and is very apt. Tender, sweet and aromatic.
Shinseiki - Crisp, sweet, bright yellow fruit borne in abundance.