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The Journey on Becoming the Luscious Pear
David Sliwa, Decorah, IA

The Luscious pear owes its existence to the coming together of pears from Harbin, China and Akron, Ohio. The Harbin pear began its trip toward this union in 1924 when Niels Ebbesen Hansen set out in search of pears growing at the northern limits of their range in harsh winter conditions. For Hansen this would be the sixth of eight world-wide ventures he would make in his lifetime to secure winter hardy breeding stock of agricultural and ornamental crops suited to the northern prairie plains of North America. At the time of this trip Hansen was a professor and plant breeder at South Dakota State College (today South Dakota State University) having arrived there in 1895 at the age of twenty- nine. It’s where he enthusiastically engaged in developing new plants to productively populate and flourish across the Northern Great Plains, and where he would live out his days.

The 1924 expedition from late July to mid-October took Hansen to northern China where he determined the north western limit of the range of Pyrus ussuriensis, a species of pear very resistant to blight and to winter kill, to be slightly east of Harbin. He focused his search for seed pears in the mountains about fifty miles east of Harbin. His headquarters was situated in an area where most other taller trees had been harvested, leaving the pear trees, since its fruit with white juicy gritty flesh was a food source of the native Manchu Chinese.

Hansen employed local farmers to bring in ripe pears, which were delivered in baskets balanced on the ends of yoked rods, by the thousands of pounds. From this bounty Hansen secured sixty-five pounds of clean seed he would use for selecting and breeding work in Brookings S. D. Those pears would be identified as the Harbin pears.

The Harbin pear for the first time provided a blight resistant winter hardy stock to be used in selecting and breeding which could lead to quality pears for the northern plains of North America.

From the time Hansen secured the Harbin seeds he placed a strong emphasis on utilizing them for future breeding. In the proceedings of the IX International Horticultural Congress in London 1930 he stated, “The main hope for the future, both for stocks and hardy varieties, is evidently in Pyrus ussuriensis of North Manchuria and East Siberia”...and describing his 1924 expedition of securing seed further stated, “The resulting trees have been sent to many places and many acres of State orchards planted in South Dakota to provide seed for stock to leave as material for future selection and hybridization.”

The USDA Woody Plant Seed Manual lists pear seeds to number about 10,000 seeds per pound. At a germination rate of 50%, sixty-five pounds of seed could have potentially yielded about 325,000 seedlings. However many trees were actually grown out, Hanson had ample stock to plant wherever land was available.

Growing in northeast Iowa, Luscious has consistently set a heavy crop requiring aggressive fruit thinning. It is moderately affected by pear blister mite which commonly infects, often severely, other pear varieties. Typical of its reliability, Luscious produced a crop in 2016 when after fruit set, a spring freeze of 18 degrees F. on May 15th caused complete fruitlet drop on most other pears and all apples and plums. It's robustness, productiveness and hardiness has made it quite grower friendly.

Over the years I wondered about the pedigree of the Luscious pear, especially the South Dakota E31 (SDE31). What was this numbered pear and where did it come from? My wife and I ventured to South Dakota in early October 2016 to rendezvous with our daughter and son-in-law in the Badlands and Black Hills; and decided to make a detour to Brookings to see if we could learn something about SDE31. On the campus of South Dakota State University we wandered into an agricultural building and inquired of a student, who was preserving botanical specimens, if she would direct us to someone we could visit with about the agricultural station's historical pear breeding program. She took us to Dr. Anne Fennell, Professor in the Department of Plant Sciences. Anne told us tree fruit breeding was no longer being done and her own research was on grape genomics. We mentioned our special interest in the Luscious pear and she responded, “By the way, Ron Peterson, the breeder of the Luscious pear, still lives in Brookings and I'm sure he would be happy to visit with you.” She secured Ron's phone number from a colleague who has kept in contact with him and we were able to set up an appointment with Ron that afternoon.

Ron Peterson greeted us in the lobby of the apartment building where he lives alone in a second-floor unit. His wife Anna-Liisa had moved into an adjacent care facility where Peterson visits her each afternoon. We were surprised Ron had memories of Decorah, Iowa where he stayed in Green Gables Cabins as a youngster while traveling from Minnesota to visit his Mother's Aunt Nellie in Princeton, Illinois.

He told us SDE31 and SDE15 most likely were F1 hybrids of Harbin and European pears: and that the hardiness of Luscious and Gourmet pears came “most definitely” from the Harbin pear. Furthermore, after Hansen died in 1950, S. A. McCrory, head of the Department of Horticulture from 1947 until 1964, preserved two of Hansen's selections for use in future breeding. These became South Dakota E31 and South Dakota E15.

Shortly thereafter in 1953 McCrory hired thirty-one-year-old Ron Peterson to teach and do research in fruit breeding. Peterson almost immediately started using South Dakota E31 and South Dakota E15 in crosses with Bartlett and a few other choice European pears. Among those other pears was Ewart; a pear of excellent quality discovered along a farm fence row by Mortimer Ewart of East Akron, Ohio. It was introduced in 1928. Ewart came to Ron Peterson's attention by Freeman Howlett of Ohio State University who was attending a conference in Brookings and suggested Ewart might be a good candidate for breeding. Howlett sent pollen of Ewart pear to Peterson who in turn used that pollen to cross with SDE31 and SDE15 in 1954. Peterson recollected that about 600 – 800 seedling trees resulted from these crosses. Just over 100 of these trees had Ewart as one parent. Among these an Ewart SDE31 cross was eventually released as the Luscious pear in 1967.When I commented how fortunate it was that so few crosses yielded such a fine pear as Luscious, Ron Peterson said he was “very pleased” and “the odds came out about right” considering the large number of different crosses he made with apples, plums and apricots.

After about an hour of visiting, Ron Peterson offered to take us to see the original Luscious pear tree. We drove to the McCrory Gardens parking lot on the east edge of Brookings. Established in 1964 the Gardens, named to honor S. A. McCrory, consists of 25 acres of formal plantings of ornamental annuals, perennials and ground covers, and 45 acres of trees and shrubs. The tree and shrub portion of McCrory Gardens has been designated as the South Dakota State Arboretum. A small area in the arboretum contains a remnant stand of pear trees which once included the original Luscious pear.

We left our car and set out on about a half mile walk. Nonagenarian Ron Peterson set a brisk pace on the overcast rainy afternoon saying he hadn't had his walk yet today. He had visited the spot several months before and had seen the original Luscious tree there, but on our visit, it was gone. In its place was a recently planted young Luscious pear tree. The ground in this grove of trees was littered with pears. We went about sampling the fruit, most of it was astringent until we came to one we both agreed was the Gourmet pear. Released in 1988, Gourmet came from a cross of South Dakota E15 and Ewart. Also a fine pear, Gourmet, can best be described as Asian pear-like with its round shape and firm crisp flesh, but with a more intense, complex flavor.

When it comes to describing the Luscious pear, I'm reminded of John Seabrook's description of the Fiorentina pear once common in the Umbria region of Italy. “It's to the supermarket pear as real people are to super models.” Yes, the Luscious pear lacks immediate eye appeal, but once tasted, brings customers back for its intense pleasurable flavor. Over many years, Farmers Market and Food co-op customers start asking by mid-summer when the Luscious pears will be ready. Ron Peterson described it as “...very juicy, sweet...a pleasant flavor similar but more intense than Bartlett. The flesh is melting but firm and remains firm to the core when ripe...Luscious is consistently an excellent dessert pear.” Indeed!

Did you know?

  • The word “pyriform” means pear-shaped

  • To “go pear-shaped” is slang, primarily in England, for going horribly wrong. The origin of the phrase is unknown.

  • Before tobacco was introduced in Europe, pear leaves were smoked.

  • In Chinese, “fen li” means both “to share a pear” and “to separate,” so it’s considred bad luck to share a pear with a friend or lover.

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