Like 99.99% of the population I’ve never seen a partridge in a pear tree. There are hardly gazillions of partridge around anymore and there are even fewer pear trees. I don’t understand why, as pears have so much going for them. I’m particularly fond of them because they’ve got something for all, from humans to everything else down the foodchain.
Pears as edible fruit are a bit tricksie. They’re either hard as bullets or the wasps have got them. Do not despair! Mrs. Mann has discovered the answer – mulled pears (thanks to River Cottage’s Pam Corbin). Yummy. If you’re not talking about edible varieties but rather Perry Pears, then power to you. A good Perry is a delightful and rare thing, and like a Mazzard aPerry Pear is a handsome ornamental tree.
Fruit needs pollinators. Where local ecosystems are in a mess, as in places in the U.S. or in China, they’re imported in vast numbers. Millions of honeybees are driven across the States to pollinate almonds in California, blueberries in Maine and citrus fruit in Florida. But it’s a two way street; fruit trees are excellent news for bees too. They produce masses of early blossom, ergo masses of early pollen and nectar for hungry honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. And not so early blossom too; a well-chosen mix of “top fruit” and soft fruit can provided huge amounts of forage from February to May. Apple varieties like James Grieve were grown by the Victorians as much for their beautiful blossom as their fruit, and pear blossom is spectacular in early spring.
This is one of the reasons why traditional orchards were the star of October’s excellent British Wildlife magazine. Orchards are great for wildlife – and not just because of their blossom. Different types of fruit tree decay at different rates, but they all give up the ghost quicker than our native trees, which means habitat for all sorts of interesting and endangered goodies. Pyrus (pear) decays relatively slowly, then Malus (apple), and quickest of all are Prunus (cherry, plum, etc.). A mixed orchard will provide saproxylic flora and fauna a wonderful range of niches to thrive in.
These include the Noble Chafer, a nice little chap British Wildlife describes as “iconic” and “charismatic”, which might be taking things a bit far, but you can appreciate their enthusiasm. There are also the moth caterpillars which eat fruit tree leaves and the six invertebrates associated with Mistletoe, which itself thrives in orchards. Further up the foodchain it’s no surprise that bats and a wide variety of birds love orchards, especially insectivorous and cavity nesting species.
The traditional orchard floor is rich in fungi rather than wildflowers, as its soil tends to be too rich for a diverse sward to develop, but is still a valuable resource for wildlife – particularly in the autumn when covered with windfalls which are a boon for late butterflies and birds like thrushes and Blackbirds (“Colly Birds”), together with small mammals like Hedgehogs. At Hookgate Cottage we are working on a planting plan which involves a more complicated understory, including nut bushes and soft fruit. Many orchards used to work this way. The gardener’s happy – it looks interesting and it’s low maintenance. The cook’s happy – all sorts of interesting culinary opportunities. And as for the wildlife… biodiversity is first cousin to utility as well as it is to beauty.
The best time to plant trees and shrubs is now. The bare root trees we sell are not only cheaper but will also do much better than pot grown, and are best planted over the winter when the plants are dormant.