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25 Jan 2022

Planting pears for your heirs, from ancient Rome to Packham's Triumph

It's hard to imagine the humble pear being reserved for the aristocracy when we're whipping up a crumble or making a cheeseboard at home, but in the Middle Ages, pears were so highly prized that the Medici family commissioned artists to paint them in their hundreds. 

We owe much to the Romans when it comes to the modern pear. While the Greek poet, Homer was the first to wax lyrical about the Gods' love of Pyrus Communis in The Odyssey, it was the Romans who made them available to mere mortals. A member of the Rosaceae (Rose) family, pears grow wild across the temperate regions of Europe and western Asia. The wild pears known to the Romans were bitter, hard and inedible unless cooked, and recipes for pears have been found in the writings of Pliny the Elder, Varro and Columella. As the Roman empire expanded, so too did the cultivation and breeding of more palatable pear varieties. The (relatively) tastier pears eaten in later medieval times were the descendants of the Roman fruit. 

Image: Bartolomeo Bimbi. Pears. 1699. Oil on canvas.
Bartolomeo Bimbi (1648-1730), an artist in the court of Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici (1642-1723), has left us with a clue about how important pears were to his patron. Foreshadowing the Enlightenment's classification of the natural world, Bimbi painted 115 varieties arranged in the order they ripened, meticulously labelled and flanked by pillars in a temple setting. Image: Bartolomeo Bimbi. Pears. 1699. Oil on canvas.

Medieval European physicians and foodies had some ideas about digestive health, what went with what and in what order. Food pairings were based on ideas about the elements (earth, air, fire and water) and the four cardinal humours (hot, cold, moist and dry), a theory popularised by Roman-era physician Galen. Meals began with foods thought to ready the stomach and ended with those considered to aid digestion and seal it. Food pairing was a complicated business and depended on the temperament of the eater, ultimate equilibrium was achieved via the correct balancing of the elements and humours. It wasn't until germ theory took its seat at the table in the 1800s that the last remnants of Galen's ideas about disease were relegated to the annals of history.

Forbidden fruit is the sweetest

The health experts of medieval times were undecided about the pear. Most doctors considered it unpleasant and poisonous; however, thirteenth-century physician Aldobrandino of Siena wrote that pears relaxed the stomach after a meal. The pear's divisive nature made it all the more appealing to the wealthy, who were seduced by the devilish thought of forbidden fruit. Cheese was likewise regarded with suspicion because peasants were fond of it, but cheeses were thought to 'seal' the stomach. This combination of qualities eventually sealed the marriage of pears to cheese at the end of a meal that endures today. 

Fruit was a luxury in the middle ages and fruit that grew on trees was considered more aristocratic than other foods because it grew so far from the soil, a lofty idea that led to fruit eaters being vicariously socially elevated and considered nobler than other citizens. This medieval fast-track to the A-list was sadly unavailable to the thrifty folk who dried their pears when they harvested a crop. Although drying fruit made sense because there was no refrigeration, a dried pear was code for poverty because the peasants were doing it.

Plate IX Herefordshire Pomona Williams Bon Chretien
Many medieval pear varieties were grown by monks and espaliered on walls in monastery gardens. The Bon Chrétien (Good Christian) Pear is an ancestor of the Williams (Bartlett), which was first cultivated in Britain in the 1790s. Image: The Herefordshire Pomona. Biodiversity Heritage Library

One of the most well-liked medieval pears was the Bon Chrétien (Good Christian), which today's Williams Pear (also known as a Bartlett) descends from. The Bon Chrétien made its way to France from Italy with St Francis of Paola. Francis had a reputation as a miracle worker and was summoned by King Louis XI to help heal his chronic gut problems. He travelled with the gift of a pear tree and instructions to care for it for a year. Francis told the King to pick the pears on St Martins day and follow his recipe for a compote to heal his digestive disorders. King Louis died before the pears ripened, but the Bon Chrétien and its descendants went on to be cultivated in gardens worldwide. 

Less than a century after Bimbi painted Medici's pears in Italy, the British Navy Board were equipping the ships now known as the First Fleet with provisions. Grafted pears were among the fruit trees chosen to journey to Botany Bay with Captain Arthur Phillip. After setting off from Portsmouth in May 1787, the First Fleet made a few stops to bolster provisions, collecting plants and seeds recommended by botanist Joseph Banks as potentially viable in the Australian climate at the same time. The Cape of Good Hope was the last port they visited, and while in South Africa, Phillip added another pear tree to the Fleet's collection.

Onwards Christian soldiers

The British soon realised that the climate and soil of the Cadigal lands around Farm Cove were not ideal for European food crops, and they moved west to find fertile land around the Parramatta River, home to the Darug peoples. The Reverend Samuel Marsden, who arrived in Sydney Cove in 1794 to remedy the 'deplorable state of the heathen world', also settled in the colony's fertile west. His estate became a talking point and was renowned in Europe for its orchards, the fruits of which included the Bon Chrétien. 

A plate featuring the Uvedale St Germain Pear from the Herefordshire Pomona.
The Uvedale St Germain is a large, British cooking pear bred in the 1600s by Dr Uvedale, a schoolmaster who collected exotic plants and trees. Image: The Herefordshire Pomona. Biodiversity Heritage Library

The Bon Chrétien's Australian story does not end there; 48 years later, Charles Henry Packham (1842-1909) was born at Toongabbie in New South Wales to British settler parents. In his early 20s, he worked as a shepherd and after marrying Mary Robards in 1863, he purchased a parcel of land at Garra. Packham progressively expanded his holdings in the Molong region, calling them 'Clifton'. He planted an orchard and kept bees to pollinate it, his quest to create a hybrid pear with a long shelf life had begun.

Packham won prizes at the Sydney Royal Agricultural Show (1889) for fruit, and heavy bearing grafted specimens. He made a significant contribution to the colony's emerging role on the world stage as an exporter of primary produce with his 1896 cross-pollination of an Uvedale St Germain and a Williams pear (a descendant of the Bon Chrétien). Charles' hybrid was praised highly by the Department of Agriculture's pear expert, W.J. Allen, who suggested naming it Packham's Triumph. Packham's pear was indeed a triumph; orchardists planted it throughout New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, Argentina and the USA. It remains one of the best-selling pears in the world today.

The next time you're making a cheeseboard or looking for a ripe pear in the fruit bowl, think for a moment about how far that unassuming piece of fruit has come and all the amazing stories it has to tell.

Family fun in the Gardens

If you'd like to share this story with the kids, there are pear trees at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah, scroll down to Rosaceae (Rose) in the 'Family' field of the Garden Explorer to find them. A visit to the Cadi Jam Ora and First Farm gardens and a quick walk up the steps to the Palace Rose Garden to see the pear's relatives at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney is another way to let off some steam and make learning about plants and history fun.


The First Fleet: The Real Story (2012), Alan Frost. 
Cheese, Pears, and History in a Proverb (2012), Massimo Montanari.
The Book of Pears: The Definitive History and Guide to Over 500 Varieties (2015), Joan Morgan.
The Pear in History, Literature, Popular Culture, and Art (2002), Jules Janick

Category: History
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