Jesuit Pear Trees - Time for a Revival?

The fruit is sweet and spicy, it's disease resistant - so why are these heirloom trees so rare?

For generations, Jesuit pear trees stood tall on French settlements along the Ontario-Michigan border, flush each fall with sweet, slightly spicy pears. Now these stately trees may number only in the few dozen, despite producing delicious fruit and having much-coveted disease resistant qualities. So is the Jesuit pear ready for a comeback like other beloved, heritage fruits?

Fans of this old French favourite say yes. And there is renewed interest: the Jesuit pear caught the attention of the slow food movement and was added in 2016 to the Ark of Taste as an endangered food worth saving. More are discovering the Jesuit pear trees thanks to a renewed interest in the cuisine and culture of their French ancestors. There’s also work underway to make these large trees smaller and easier to grow.

Jesuit Pear Trees Produce a small, sweet and spicy fruit

Jesuit pear trees produce a small fruit that is sweet and spicy. Photo credit: Lauren Moscoe

Jesuit Pear Trees a Slow Food Favourite

Lauren Moscoe, a botanist and a member of Slow Food Huron Valley, admits she is not a fan of grocery store pears. So she was surprised when she first tasted one of the small, apple shaped Jesuit pears brought by grower Jean Tremblay to a Slow Food event in Michigan. “When I first tried a slice, I thought it may be pickled pear, it had a rich, spicy robust flavour.” The Ark of Taste describes the taste as “extremely sweet and juicy, with a honey-like taste and hints of vanilla.”

Beside its unique taste and history, Lauren is interested in the genetic diversity of the Jesuit pear. Today, the pear tree is usually propagated through grafting onto another rootstock, creating cloned version of the tree. But earlier propagation practices likely included cross pollination. She expects there’s genetic diversity worth exploring and preserving within the small and dispersed Jesuit pear tree population.

Other researchers, including at Agriculture Canada, are focused on understanding the Jesuit pears tree’s vigour, longevity and resistance to fire blight and insect pests that commonly plague pear and other fruit trees.

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Tiny Pears, Rich Cultural French History

Jesuit Pears can be eaten fresh or preserved. Photo credit: Lauren Moscoe

While the Jesuit pear tree is not native to North America, the trees were first planted in the 1700’s by French settlers. The French planted the first orchards and ate the fruit fresh, preserved and as cider. Some of the more than 200-year-old Jesuit pear trees still standing today mark these old farms and orchards.

But the pear got its common name from the Jesuit missionaries who are believed to have planted them as pips initially in the Windsor-Detroit area. Legend has it they planted the trees in clusters of 12 to honour the apostles, with one off to the side to represent Judas. The tree also goes by the names Old French pear and Mission pear.

Once hundreds of Jesuit pear trees lined both sides of the Detroit River. Plaques in Windsor and Detroit recognize pear’s significance in early French history.

So why did the Jesuit pear fall out of favour? Likely the tree’s huge oak-like size and in contrast, tiny fruits are partially to blame. It’s a lot of hard work to successfully harvest thousands of small pears from a 40-feet tree in a few days. French settlers developed pickling recipes, still used today, to preserve the harvest.

Jesuit pears are also not easy to grow compared to the standard pear tree. They don’t flourish if planted by seed and can take up to 20 years to produce a full crop. That’s why the grafting techniques to manage the tree’s size and other challenges are so important to bring this heritage pear back to orchards.

Bringing Back the Jesuit Pear Tree

Jesuit pear enthusiasts are protecting these stately old trees and making it easier for new trees to be planted. While Jesuit pear trees may not yet be available at commercial nurseries, here’s where you can find out more about this special heritage fruit:

  • Slow Food Huron Valley and its partners are mapping the locations of existing Jesuit pear and Paw Paw trees. Add a new tree or find out find where they are today on their Jesuit pear and Paw Paw map.
  • Robert Holland, originally from Windsor, Ontario, has been encouraging the planting of Jesuit pear trees in the Great Lakes region for more than a decade. You can find out more about his efforts on jesuitpear.com
Andrea Bannister

Andrea Bannister

Freelance Journalist

A lifelong gardener, Andrea Bannister is a freelance communicator and mom of three outdoor-loving kids in Toronto, Ontario.