One of America's First Fruit Trees Still Going Strong

Updated at: 08/30/2013 7:01 AM
By: Networx

Photo: juditu/morguefile.com383 years ago, John Endicott planted a pear sapling in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The tree had been tenderly nursed across the Atlantic along with a number of compatriots intended for planting in the New World, to provide the settlers with the familiar tastes and looks of home.

Along with many of the other trees Endicott and his fellow colonists established, the tree went on to grow and thrive. It definitely lived up to his expectations that it would be seen by generations to come long after he was dead, though observers in the 1700s noted that the Endicott Pear was starting to look a little long in the tooth.

Yet, the tree managed to hold on. It was fenced to protect it and carefully maintained by tree-lovers. It lived through hurricanes, storms, and vandalism. And now, 383 years later, it's remarkably not just still growing, but producing fruit. Evidently the pears, which even at their peak were described as more suited to cooking and baking than eating out of hand, aren't terribly tasty, but it's still astonishing to think that a tree can keep fruiting after almost 400 years.

The tree is recognized as a critical part of our heritage, so much so that the United States Department of Agriculture has actually cloned it. This ensures the genetic material of the Endicott Pear will live on even longer, even if the original tree eventually succumbs to time. Some believe it may be the oldest fruit tree in the United States, and it's certainly older than the impressive slew of apple trees introduced in the early 1800s by "Johnny Appleseed."

It's been the subject of poetry, feted by Presidents, and much more; the Endicott Pear could be said to be an indelible part of our gardening and cultural heritage, even though it hasn't enjoyed much fame in recent years. Visitors to Danvers, MA (near Boston) can see the tree in an inconspicuous wooded area, surrounded by chainlink fencing to protect it from overeager guests.

In addition to being of historical interest, the Endicott Pear also intrigues genetic researchers and agricultural experts. They'd love to know what it is about this particular tree that's allowed it to survive through so much, including mutilation in storms that would have killed lesser arboreal cousins. Understanding these traits could help us breed hardier trees and rootstock, bringing a little bit of the Endicott Pear into gardens and farms across the United States.

Boston landscapers interested in integrating a piece of American history into the yards of their clients will have to settle for commercial pear saplings for now, but that's probably just as well. Until the perfect blend of hardiness and tasty fruit can be accomplished, these fruits aren't anything to write home about, a common issue with some heritage fruit trees, especially those of great age. However, there may come a time in the future when Endicott Pear rootstock and saplings take pride of place in the nursery.

When that day comes, hopefully John Endicott will be smiling somewhere at the thought of his tremendous legacy. As an adventurer in a new world about which little was known, he set out to carve a place for his faith and people, and he would no doubt be astounded to see what the US has become, and that at least one tangible record of his work lives on.

Katie Marks writes for Networx.com.

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