Eric’s Pet Plant: Weeping Willowleaf Pear (Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’)

Maybe it’s the Northeast’s amazingly early spring, bringing out blossoms not normally seen at this time of year. Or maybe it’s the effect of the new greenhouse, bringing up thoughts of new landscaping to go with. Or maybe Eric’s just beginning to have vacation on his mind. Whatever the reason, get ready to enjoy English gardens as well as weeping pears.

Weeping Pear, Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’

“Our little tree is four years old, planted at a foot tall and doing nicely,” he said about this specimen at Yale’s Marsh Gardens.

“Weeping pear will eventually round out to 20 or so feet high with an equal or even larger width,” he went on. “The informal round shape is a great component to soften the edges of, say, a large expanse of concrete.”

All that came with the picture of the little tree.  Here’s the rest:

Weeping Pear,  Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’

by Eric Larson

When I was traipsing through the gardens of Devon and Somerset some years back, one plant that struck me – partly because its inherent beauty but also because of the setting – was the Weeping Pear at Knightshayes Court, I think, near Tivorton.

The tree was planted in the middle of an arc of yew bushes (Taxus species), which provided a backdrop of dark green highlighting the silver gray foliage of the Pear. This relationship was in addition to the upright but yet informal shape of the Yew bushes contrasting with the weeping mound-shaped Pear tree. This knockout combination struck me as a perfectly English garden statement, understated but just so choice.

Perhaps I generalize too easily on this one, but the British do have a way with gardening. Everyone in England seems to garden, or at least appreciates gardening and gardeners. Even in the cities, where paving and centuries-long development have left little room for what we think of as a garden, people utilize window boxes, pots and other inventive areas for gardening. And they seem to all do it well.  I begin to understand the Colonel’s crustaceous attitude towards my own gardening efforts.

Devon and Cornwall, the two most southwesterly counties in England, have distinctive climate and geologic conditions that make them interesting for gardeners and visitors to gardens.  For one thing, they are full in the path of the Gulf Stream, which moderates the cold temperatures, to such an extent that palm trees are grown quite handily in a setting whose latitude puts it north of Nova Scotia.

This is an example of a sort of macro-micro climate. My favorite garden in England, though it is extremely hard to choose just one, had to be Hestercombe Gardens in Somerset County, which when I first visited there was maintained by the local volunteer fire department in a land where the National Trust had bought up and preserved many of the country’s estate gardens.

Since 1996, Hestercombe has been run by its own trust and has changed quite a bit, but what remains is still one of the most charming garden visit experiences you can imagine. Covering three centuries of garden design and engagement, the totality is an education in itself, but also one very beautifully kept garden. The Lutyens-Jekyll Plat itself is worth the day, let alone the older gardens and grounds.

Concerning Pears

Pear trees are thought to have originated in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountain range in Central Asia, in what is today western China.  They have been cultivated in China for over three thousand years, and have also spread through trade routes to the north and west.

Traces of pear have been found in the Neolithic and Bronze Age Swiss lake-dwellings, and the linguistic evidence points to very ancient cultivation of pear from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic. The word ‘pear’ is a derivation of the Vulgar Latin ‘pira,’ which came from the Greek ‘api[r]os,’ which is of Semitic origin.  The genus name is also from Latin, being derived from the same roots.

There are around twenty-five or thirty species within the genus, but  gastronomically speaking there are only three that provide the bulk of edible pears: the European Pear (Pyrus communis ssp. communis), the Chinese White Pear (P. x bretshcneider) and the Nashi Pear (P. pyrifolia).

These and their crosses make up the huge majority of edible pears. In general, pears have fewer problems than other members of the rose family (Rosaceae) such as apricots and plums. But they are subject to a couple of afflictions worth noting. Besides leaf rollers, some scab on susceptible varieties and deer browse on all of them, the main bad guy in the Pear filmography is Fire Blight, a bacterial disease that affects all rose family members, but especially Pears.

‘Plant pears for your heirs,’ is a saying that gives you some idea of how slowly they grow, and how long it takes for the fruiting varieties to produce. Poor soils slow them down even further, but overly fertile soils cause lush green growth that tends to be more susceptible to the disease problems. This goes for all Rose family fruit trees: they don’t need fertilization unless you are trying to grow them in EXTREMELY poor soil: think parking lot.

P. salicifolia, aka willow-leafed pear, is native to the Middle East. It does well in the infertile soils most pears prefer, and is at its best in full sun. The weeping form, P. salicifolia ‘Pendula’ seems not to be too troubled by the usual pear problems, so it’s an outstanding ornamental.

The white perfect flowers, which have a musky fragrance, appear in mid- to late April; the silver-gray foliage is interesting by way of contrast to the surrounding green all growing season and the weeping form is a four-season accent.

The flowers of weeping pear are showy but not very attractive aromatically. I had an impartial observer confirm that they are indeed somewhat "musky" in scent.

Although I have had fruit appear on the one I planted in Westville when we lived there, it was small and not much by way of taste. No matter. The weeping willow leaf pear is well worth planting for its beauty alone. It is not widely available at garden centers but can be found on-line or at specialty nurseries.

Note: Many independent garden centers will special order trees they do not keep in stock. This is the best time of year to ask. LL.

Disclaimer: The opinions and thoughts expressed within these columns are not those of Yale University, Marsh Botanical Gardens, or Leslie Land. They are personal reflections on life, plants, humankind and the daily miracles that come my way.

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