Monday, 18 June 2018
Wild Pear (Pyrus pyraster)
WILD PEAR (Pyrus pyraster, synonym: P. communis subsp. pyraster)
Wild Pear grows from the Caucasus across to Western Europe (for distribution map see EUFORGEN). It has long been uncertain whether the Wild Pears found in Britain are actually native and it’s often suggested that most are relicts from past cultivation. However, it is difficult to understand why such a hard and tasteless fruit would ever have been cultivated and moreover, Wild Pear is so different from any of the local cultivated varieties the common assumption is that it is in fact truly wild (for UK distribution map see The National Biodiversity Network Atlas).
It ranges from a medium-sized shrub (3-4 m) up to a tree of between 15 to 20 m tall. Its branches have thorns that can be long and very tough. The leaves are rather small and almost circular with long stalks. The fruits are also small (up to 4 cm across) and they are generally more or less spherical, they ripen around October to a greenish-yellow. They are exceptionally hard, although they soften once they’ve been bletted, and the flesh is full of siliceous granules made up of clusters of sclereids or ‘stone cells’ (appropriately one the local names of Wild Pear is ‘Stone Fruit’). Wild Pear fruits are virtually tasteless; they can be eaten raw but are more palatable if cooked (Plants For A Future [PFAF] database).
PLYMOUTH PEAR (Pyrus cordata)
There is a second, much more rare species of wild pear in Britain, the Plymouth Pear (Pyrus cordata). It is a thorny shrub 3 to 4 metres tall that is found growing in hedges only near Plymouth in Devon (for distribution maps see Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora). The flowers are much smaller than those of Pyrus pyraster and the fruit is also tiny, only 10 to 18 mm across. The other distinguishing feature of the Plymouth Pear is that the sepals drop off, whereas in the more common wild species they stay on the fruit.
Prehistoric and historic usage
Charred remains of pears (identified as Pyrus cordata) were found in the Mesolithic midden on Téviec Island off the coast of Brittany (Bakels 1991: 280). Caches of wild pears (Pyrus pyraster) were found in burnt buildings at the late Neolithic Serbian site of Vinča (Filipović et al. 2018). In one house (02/06) charred fruits were found in a pot containing c. 5 kg of emmer grains and in several other houses there were clusters, often in the remains of walls or in association with potsherd concentrations, which the authors suggest: “may have been kept in bags hung up on walls or suspended from a ceiling, or in pots perhaps placed on “shelves” along the walls” (Filipović et al. 2018: 37 and figure 3). The same species of wild pear is recorded in final La Tène contexts associated with the oppidum at Bibracte, Mont Beuvray (Nièvre/Sâone-et-Loire, France; Moore 2013; Wiethold 1994: table 4). And at the site of Pócspetri- Bikaréti szivárgó (northeast Hungary) Pyrus pyraster seeds were recovered from a pot within a Medieval (14th-15th century) refuse pit (239/636), in which all the plant remains were waterlogged (Pető et al. 2017: table 1 and figure 8). Interestingly, also in the pot was a fragment of bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) rind. It is a ‘New World’ cultivated species and the Pócspetri- Bikaréti szivárgó specimen represents the earliest evidence of its use in Hungary.
There are many references to the traditional uses (either edible or medicinal) of Wild Pear, especially from Balkan countries. For example, Pyrus pyraster fruits were eaten raw or made into a nutritive potion in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Redzic 2007), they were distilled and applied topically to treat a range of ailments, including wounds, toothache, headache and eye infections, on the Pešter Plateau, Sandžak (southwest Serbia; Pieroni et al. 2011), in the Albanian Alps a tincture made from the fruits was used to cure hypertension and to prevent the build up of cholesterol (Mustafa et al. 2012), and in several Eastern European countries bordering the Balkans the fruits were pickled or fermented to make vinegar (Sõukand et al. 2015).
Bakels, C.C. 1991. West Continental Europe. In, van Zeist, W., Wasylikowa, K. and Behre, K.-E. (eds.) Progress in Old World Palaeoethnobotany. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam. pp. 279-298.
EUFORGEN: European Forest Genetics Resources Programme. http://www.euforgen.org/ [accessed: 08.05.18]
Filipović, D., Obradović, D. and Tripković, B. 2018. Plant storage in Neolithic southeast Europe: synthesis of the archaeological and archaeobotanical evidence from Serbia. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 27: 31-44.
Moore, T. 2013. Bibracte (Mont Beauvray). In, Bagnall, R.S., Brodersen, K., Champion, C.B., Erskine, A. and Huebner, S.R. (eds.) The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. Blackwell, Oxford. pp. 1113-1114. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah16025
Mustafa, B., Hajdari, A., Krasniqi, F., Hoxha, E., Ademi, H., Quave, C.L. and Pieroni, A. 2012. Medical ethnobotany of the Albanian Alps in Kosovo. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 8:6 http://www.ethnobiomed.com/content/8/1/6
Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. https://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/ [accessed 08.05.18]
Pető, Á., Kenéz, Á., Lisztes-Szabó, Z., Sramkó, G., Laczó, L., Molnár, M. and Bóka, G. 2017. The first archaeobotanical evidence of Lagenaria siceraria from the territory of Hungary: histology, phytoliths and (a)DNA. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 26: 125-142.
Pieroni, A., Giusti, M.E. and Quave, C.L. 2011. Cross-cultural ethnobiology in the Western Balkans: medical ethnobotany and ethnozoology among Albanians and Serbs in the Pešter Plateau, Sandžak, South-Western Serbia. Human Ecology 39: 333-349.
Redzic, S.J. 2007. Wild edible plants and their traditional use in the human nutrition in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 45(3): 189-232.
Sõukand, R., Pieroni, A., Biró, M., Dénes, A., Dogan, Y., Hajdari, A., Kalle, R., Reade, B., Mustafa, B., Nedelcheva, A., Quave, C.L. and Łuczaj, Ł. 2015. An ethnobotanical perspective on traditional fermented plant foods and beverages in Eastern Europe. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 170: 284-296.
Wiethold, J. 1996. Late Celtic and early Roman plant remains from the oppidum of Bibracte, Mont Beuvray (Burgundy, France). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 5: 105-116.
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