I have a confession to make. Not a very consequential one in the scheme of things, but one that surprises me nonetheless, and that I feel strangely guilty about. Here it is: I like Asian pears more than apples.

OK, I said it. The reason it is so surprising to me, and why I feel hesitant to admit it to myself, is that I have been an apple lover all my life. I was the kid who always had an apple in his lunchbox, and was actually happy about it. I’ve always been an “apple a day keeps the doctor away” guy as long as I can remember, and since I bought land and started my own orchard 20 years ago, I have grown and tasted dozens of heirloom apple varieties, and, weather permitting, have stored enough each fall to last me at least nine months of the year, while in the remaining three have gotten my fix from home canned apple sauce and dried apples.

Which is why I feel strangely disloyal in making this confession, but I think it’s true, and the reason I know it is this: If I eat an apple, say an Ashmead’s Kernel, York Imperial, or Kidd’s Orange Red, which are three of my favorites from my orchard, I find it delicious, and am thoroughly contented. BUT, if I eat an Asian pear, THEN eat one of those apples, I am left strangely dissatisfied—and in times where I have had bags of both Asian pears and apples stored in the fridge, I have repeatedly found myself eating all the pears before coming back around to the apples—and am left feeling like I have shamefully strayed from a long-term relationship.

If you’ve never experienced an Asian pear (known as ‘nashi’ in Japanese) for yourself, they are quite distinct from either apples or our more common European pears in texture, flavor, and scent. A good, ripe one will be very crisp and juicy, kind of grainy-textured in a pleasant way (very unlike the dry texture of an apple, or the buttery texture of a European pear), and mildly to more intensely sweet depending on the cultivar, but balanced with a subtle tartness that becomes more and more prominent as you eat your way to the core. The sweetness never becomes cloying, like many modern apple varieties seemingly bred to simulate candy, and their watery juiciness serves to dilute the sweetness to a perfect balance with the tangy tartness that to me is their most redeeming quality. There are often hints of butterscotch or vanilla in the flavor and/or aroma. They are usually peeled, due to the thick, dry skin of many varieties, but I find it quite pleasant to eat them whole. Visually, they are also quite distinct, with most common varieties here in the U.S. being either round or oblong, and sometimes quite large, with skin ranging from pale yellow or green to deep copper in color, often with prominent lenticels, and long, curved stems, like this Seuri:

The seeds are dark brown to jet black.

Asian pears are native to China and Japan. They first came to the U.S. in the 1850’s with the Chinese labor force working in California during the gold rush. Along with European pears, they belong to the Pyrus genus, and are divided into a few different species, with the most common being P. pyrifolia (referring to their round shape), along with the less common P. bretschneideri, which are native to northern China and are tapered toward the stem more like a European pear. In addition to their excellent flavor, there are a number of other characteristics of nashi that make them a great addition to a home orchard:

  • They tend to be far less susceptible to insects and disease than apples and European pears, making them a great choice for an organic grower; a few varieties are known to be susceptible to fireblight, though I haven’t had any significant blight on my trees to date. The biggest problem I have with certain varieties are dimpled or misshapen fruit, which is caused by early season feeding or egg laying by plum curculio, tarnished plant bug, and/or the brown marmorated stink bug. As this damage is cosmetic only, and the fruit remains edible, it is of no real consequence for the home orchardist;
  • The trees are precocious, bearing early and heavily thereafter. Unlike some apples, they have shown no sign of biennial bearing (taking a year off after a bumper-sized crop). Most varieties of Asian pears bear so heavily that they actually benefit greatly from early season thinning, as it increases fruit size and quality;
  • The trees are at least somewhat self-fertile, though they will crop most consistently with the presence of other pears with a similar bloom time for best cross-pollination. European and Asian pears are close enough relatives that they will pollinate each other, and Asian pears can be grown on the common rootstocks used for European pears—all my Asian pears are grafted on Old Home x Farmingdale 87 (OHxF 87), which is a semi-dwarf, fireblight resistant pear rootstock;
  • Asian pears ripen on the tree. Unlike some European pears, which need to be harvested early and put in cold storage for a period of time in order to ripen properly, nashi ripen fully on the tree, and are ready for immediate consumption when picked. Most nashi varieties, like the Bartlett pear, display a distinct change in skin color when fully ripe, which makes it easy to determine when to harvest. They often ripen sequentially, rather than all at once, so a prolonged harvest is possible;
  • The trees are generally cold hardy from USDA hardiness zones 5 through 9, though this will vary by cultivar. When I first planted Asian pears they were considered marginal for my zone 5b location in upstate New York (average low of -10 to -15 degrees F); we have gotten as low as -18 degrees F here, and the trees have not suffered at all as a result. That being said, some varieties will fruit better and will definitely taste better in some microclimates than others, so it would be of benefit to see what varieties others in your immediate vicinity are having success with;
  • There are early/mid/late season varieties to select from, so you can harvest nashi all the way from late-July thru November depending on your location; there are also a number of varieties that are excellent keepers, lasting in cold storage for up to six months or so with a minimal loss in quality;
  • Like other Pyrus, they generally grow in a columnar shape, with a strong central leader and short, upright side branches, so they take up less space and can be planted closer together in an orchard setting;
  • They bloom early, so have a long growing season, which can occasionally be a problem in years with late spring frost;
  • Like apples, Asian pears are equally useful fresh, dried, made into sauce, or even for vinegar.

At present I am growing seven different varieties: Chojuro, Olympic (also known as Korean Giant), Seuri, Yoinashi, Shinko, Hosui, and Shinsui. Of these I have as yet tasted the fruit of only five, as the Shinko and Yoinashi are recent additions to my orchard. Of the varieties that have borne fruit, I like them all for different reasons, but if pressed to choose only one, it would be Chojuro, as it has been the most consistent producer, keeps very well in storage, ripens to the most beautiful color, and has a very distinct butterscotch note in its flavor. One thing I will say for sure is that I want to grow more of them.

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