“I thank Lady Peter for the pear kernels & am often thinking what to send her for A requitall”
Thus wrote the great American botanist John Bartram of Philadelphia to his English friend and business partner Peter Collinson on April 1, 1739.
Lady Petre (or Peter) was the wife of Lord Peter, a very wealthy young landowner who was Bartram’s angel investor in Europe. Before becoming connected with Lord Peter, Bartram had been struggling to succeed at his business endeavor, selling boxes of American bulbs, seeds, and plants to Europeans fascinated with the previously unknown species of the New World.
Imagine seeing a Southern Magnolia for the first time, or a Sugar Maple in blazing fall color. It’s hard to overestimate the plant lust these newly discovered species created on the parts of the landed gentry, many of whom had thousands of acres waiting to be naturalistically filled with plants in the then-popular English landscape style.
Occasionally Lord Peter would send Bartram a few things in return- the seeds from his wife’s favorite sugar pear among them.
By 1763 Bartram’s pear tree had borne fruit. This photo, taken at Bartram’s Garden in 1917, shows the Lady Petre Pear growing near the back door. I’ve come across a very few explanations why, but it was common to plant pear trees near the kitchen door, and the long lived trees are still seen in the backyards of some very old houses in Philadelphia and south of here.
The only other known mature Lady Peter Pear tree in America (and maybe anywhere) grows in my friend Joel’s beautiful garden in Germantown. It’s located on the site of the 18th century garden of Melchior Meng, who kept a botanical collection there. The tree, as custom dictates, is smack in front of the kitchen door. In this photo the door is hidden behind the trunk.
Joel knows how much I admire his tree, and this week he brought me four pears, before the squirrels chewed them. I haven’t tasted them yet, because I am still admiring their shape and color. Slightly larger than an egg, these pears are redolent of the 18th century.
One’s getting a soft spot, so I’ll probably try them tonight. You can be sure I’ll save the kernels, just like Lady Petre did. I’ll plant a few, and to honor tradition I’ll send some others in a tiny box to a friend who appreciates the story of this tree as much as I do.
UPDATE: I ate the pears. Either I’m a suggestible person, or this was the best pear I have ever had. Juicy and thin-skinned, the flavor was complex, and it wasn’t watery. More like a good apple, or even wine. And I did save the seeds.