In vegetables there are very few varieties which are more than 100 years old. Plant breed programs have improved yields and disease resistance (often at the expense of flavour and nutritional value) beyond all recognition. Fruit trees, probably because of the time required to bring a new variety to the market are a different matter. If you would like to eat a piece of agricultural history then Doyenne Du Comice is a fine place to start. This pear was bred in France in 1849, just 30 or so years after the death of Napoleon and a year after the February revolution forced King Louis-Phillipe to abdicate and flee to England. It was introduced to England by Sir Francis Dyke Acland in 1858. It is still in commercial production in the continent.
Doyenne is not the easiest pear to grow, requiring a good site and at least one pollination partner. Compared to more modern varieties, pollination and fruit set is poor however it is still widely grown because of its exceptional flavour and smooth buttery texture. The pears have a smooth skin and the fruit is usually of exceptional quality. Often reputed to be the finest pear you can grow it is well worth making space for one of these.
In the kitchen
Doyenne Du Comice is a dessert rather than a cooking pear and is considered to be the best tasting pear you can grow. Its fine buttery flesh and sweet perfumed flesh is best enjoyed raw. Eat it on its own, with cheese or in salads.
Yield and Plant Health
You don’t grow Doyenne for its large yields but even saying that Doyenne du Comice can be a bit of a diva. It has taken four years to get two pears, even though there was plentiful blossom and it has 2 good pollination partners nearby. This is possibly because the flowers are quite cupped which bees might have difficulty accessing or it may be because it is such an old variety. However the pears that I did get were large and well formed. You must have at least one pollination partner for Doyenne, conference, concord, Williams and Beth are recommended. Doynne also needs a good site, sheltered but sunny.
Widely available but can be found at the below on a range of rootstocks or shapes.
How to Grow
Pears are hardy trees that can live for 50 plus years if well looked after although they are considered to be a bit more fussy than apple trees, Traditionally they are planted when dormant in the winter and you can buy either pots or bare rooted plants.
Trees are often grown on different rootstocks to reduce the size that they will grow to. The smaller the root stock, the faster to fruit but yield is reduced. Smaller rootstocks are good for training pear against walls in the forms of cordons or “stepovers” or for growing in pots.
Quince C – Trees will grow up to three metres and fruit after 3 years. Plant trees 4 meters apart and will need permanent staking.
Quince A – Trees will grow to 4.5 metres and fruit after 4 years. Plant 5 metres apart and stake for the first 5 years.
If your tree is not self fertile you will need to find it a partner tree in the same pollination group. Pollination group A can usually pollenate A and B. Pollination group B can pollinate A, B and C. Pollination group C can pollinate B and C and D. Pollination group D can pollinate C and D. Some trees, like conference are self fertile, others like Beurre Hardy or Merton pride are poor pollinators for other trees. Check if you need a partner before you buy.
Before your plants arrive prepare the ground in a sunny, sheltered spot preferably with good drainage. You will also need stakes and ties and you might want to have mmycorrhizal fungi
Dig a hole the size of the rootball in depth but three times as wide. If your soil is heavy clay you might want to incorporate some extra drainage with some grit and compost. Position your stake in the planting pit and bang firmly in using a mallet. If using mycorrhizal fungi then gently sprinkle over the roots before laying them down in the planting pit, spreading the roots out in the pit. The tree should be no deeper than previously planted and the graft, if it is a grafted tree should not be covered. Cover the roots with soil and gently firm in with your foot around the tree. Tie the tree to the stake and water well.
After this your tree should need little attention. It is advisable to remove any fruit that sets in the first year to allow it focus on setting up healthy roots and growth and to water in dry periods in the first year. The stake should remain for at least the first two years but pears grown on dwarfing rootstocks may need permanent staking and watering if dry.
Remove and dead or crossing branches in winter when dormant. You can also thin in summer to allow more light in to the tree. Spur bearing trees can handle greater pruning than tip bearing, where removal of the tips mean the removal of all fruit. This means only spur bearers should be used for cordons and stepovers.
Pears are ready to harvest when if you bend the fruit by 90 degrees it pulls easily away from the tree. Once they have reached full size, a few dropping can be a good indication. Because many pears store well in cool conditions they can be harvested a little underripe and stored in the fridge.