One of the UK’s rarest trees, Plymouth pear gets its name from the area it was originally found growing in 1870. It can now be found in areas of western Europe as well as the UK, primarily Plymouth and Truro.
Common name: Plymouth pear
Scientific name: Pyrus cordata
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: Plymouth pear has a in built control mechanism (called self-incompatibility) which prevents inbreeding – it produces very little viable seed. This has resulted in it becoming one of our rarest trees.
What does Plymouth pear look like?
Overview: a deciduous shrub or small tree of hedgerows that can reach 8 to 10 metres high. It’s smaller than domesticated pear. It has purplish twigs with pink-brown heartwood.
Leaves: vary in shape from elliptical to rounded with a wedge-shaped, rounded or heart-shaped base.
Flowers: pale cream to pink flowers that appear in late April and early May. Flowers have a disgusting, albeit faint, scent that has been described as ‘decaying scampi’.
Fruits: the fruit distinguishes Plymouth pear from domesticated pear in that it’s small, hard and more rounded. It is brown and woody in appearance when first ripe.
Look out for: the shape of the fruit is not that of a classic pear. The fruits are almost round on long stalks.
Could be confused with: Domestic pear (Pyrus communis). Plymouth pear fruits are smaller, hard and more rounded. It also has purplish twigs, instead of the grey-brown twigs of the domestic pear and spinier branches.
Identified in winter by: hairless twigs with alternate, oval purple-brown buds.
Where to find Plymouth pear
Plymouth pear is one of Britain’s rarest trees and is currently thought to survive in just two wild hedgerows in Plymouth and Truro. Originally it may have been a widespread component of mixed deciduous woodlands.
While it can grow in shade it prefers full sun and thrives best at the edge of woodlands and in hedgerows in moist soil.
Globally, this species is restricted to western Europe with populations in the UK, France, particularly in Brittany, and the north-western regions of Spain and Portugal.
Is Plymouth pear really native to the UK?
No one is sure whether this species is native to the UK. The Plymouth and Truro trees could be ancient local inhabitants, dating back before the English Channel appeared, or more recent immigrants whose seeds were brought here by birds.
Another theory is that they could have been introduced much more recently by humans since populations in north-west France live mainly in ancient woodland, whereas the UK trees live in suburban habitats.
Value to wildlife
Once ripe, the fruit becomes much fleshier and is a food source for blackbirds amongst others.
Plymouth pear is very rare in the UK and has suffered from changing climates and removal of hedgerows, making it more susceptible to disease and cross fertilisation with other pears.
This species is the focus of conservation efforts because it represents a scarce and unique genetic resource. It hybridises well with domestic pears which may have horticultural value in the future.