22 August 1997

Help preserve a tree with ancient British connection

IF you have one of Britains rarest trees in your hedgerows, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew would love to hear from you.

The Plymouth pear is only known to exist at two sites, Plymouth and Truro, but it could be blossoming undiscovered elsewhere.

The tree, one of only two wild pears, was first recorded botanically in 1865 but its story is strongly believed to be inextricably interwoven with ancient Britain. Wherever Celtic settlements are known to have flourished the Plymouth pear seems to surface. In the 19th century the idea that it was linked with King Arthur and his Knights was floated.

The pear could have been brought to this country from other Celtic lands, Brittany or Portugal, where it flourishes, for example. But how and why it took root in the south-west is shrouded in mystery.

The marble-sized fruits, a matt olive green going towards black, only develop the familiar taste when they are going rotten but it is closely related to the domestic pear. It blossoms late, the first week in May, and the flowers unpleasant smell has been likened to rotten scampi. It can grow to 30 feet and while it will thrive in woodland and margins, hedges, where birds can easily distribute its seed and it can expand by suckering, are considered the ideal habitat.

The Plymouth pear was among the first to be funded under English Natures Species Recovery Programme, which aims to secure the future for endangered wild populations, because it was one of the most threatened species. Historical distribution is south of the A30 between Plymouth and Truro but it could exist elsewhere. A possible sighting in Yorkshire is being investigated.

An experimental population, from suckers and seed, has now been planted on the National Trusts Lanhydrock Estate to safeguard its future. Trees are also being raised in botanic gardens, arboretums and horticultural colleges and seed is being stored at Kew. Eventually it is hoped to get the Plymouth pear to a sustainable level in its historic countryside location.

If you think you have a Plymouth pear on your land, you can contact Andy Jackson, conservation and woodland manager for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, at Wakehurst Place, Ardingley, West Sussex RH17 6TN.

Tom Montgomery

Pear-taste comes with over-ripening.

Plymouth pears bloom in early May.