The quest for the wild pear tree

Each October for the last six years, our family has undertaken a quest to visit a wild pear tree. Located in a small, quiet canyon south of town, this pear tree is both a mystery and a treat. We are puzzled by how it got there and we are delighted by the sweet fruit it can produce.

Our wild pear is a stranger to Arizona as wild pears are native to Great Britain. The seed may have come from a hiker’s lunch or an animal’s scat, or perhaps it was transported down the wash by a flood from civilization that’s just a few miles away. Despite its unknown history, it found a place to germinate, sprout and thrive.

The special canyon seems to be the ideal location for the pear. Decent soil, light shade, little exposure, and periodic moisture are all conditions under which a pear can flourish. The pear’s surroundings in the wash provide a moister environment than the drier hillsides. Native trees and canyon walls give protection from the sun and wind. The lush vegetation prevents erosion and allows the organic matter from decaying leaves to remain in place and enrich the soil. Nature has created the ideal environment for growing this mysterious tree; these are just the conditions that we would try to provide if we were planting a fruit tree in our garden.

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Many other plants join the pear in making the riparian canyon their home: boxelder, aspen, white fir, and Douglas-fir are native trees found in the wash. Willow, red-stem dogwood, snowberry, wax current, and woods rose are abundant. Virginia creeper and Arizona grape scramble among rocks in the creek bottom. As in many riparian areas, poison ivy also flourishes there so we always watch our step.

Surprisingly, pears can grow with periodic drought and are hardy to temperatures well below freezing. But even this tough tree struggled during the drought of 2002. Like many unirrigated trees native or not, it suffered considerable branch dieback. And it produced no fruit. Miraculously, it survived the drought and it continues to grow and prosper.

The delight of this tree is not only that it grows in a secret canyon but that sometimes it bears fruit. No different than other fruit trees grown at high elevations, its fruit production is unpredictable and is not always an annual event. The clear, cold nights of spring likely damage the delicate blossoms in many years and prevent fruit from being formed. Even in years when the conditions are right for fruit production, we do not always find fruit. We may be competing with fellow hikers or hungry animals. This year we found three diminutive but deliciously sweet pears. We savored them in the shade of a cliff decorated with ancient petroglyphs.

We look forward to next year’s quest. Will the tree be laden with fruit as it has been in the past, or will it be barren? But whether we find fruit or not, we always delight in seeing this special tree, visiting an unsoiled canyon so close to town, and seeing the riot of autumn colors in the riparian forest where the pear tree lives. Our quest is a reminder that growing plants in northern Arizona is not always about the product but rather the marvel of plant endurance in a challenging environment.

This article was first published in 2005. Last year, the wild pear tree still thrived. We’ll revisit it this Sunday to see how it is faring in 2022.

Hattie Braun is the Coconino County Director for Arizona Cooperative Extension and the Master Gardener Program Coordinator in Coconino County. Tom Kolb is a Professor in the School of Forestry at Northern Arizona University. For more information about the Master Gardener program, visit: https://extension.arizona.edu/coconino-master-gardener. In-person and online Master Gardener classes will be offered starting in January 2023.

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