The Jesuit pear tree is taller than most fruit trees, resembling an oak or elm in stature. Some have been known to grow 40 feet high, with circumference of 18 ft. Historical accounts claim they grew up to 80 ft. tall and produced 40-60 bushels of pears per year. The pears are not ideal for commercial production, and have thus fallen out of general use. The tree has not been successfully started from seed, only grafting. It is a slow growing tree and may take 10-20 years for a grafting to bear a sufficient market crop, depending on the conditions. This variety of pear tree is an early bloomer and thus can be helpful in attracting bees to a farm to pollinate crops. Due to the height of the trees, however, they are difficult to harvest. Yet they produce large numbers of tiny, sweet, slightly spicy pears, which are good for eating fresh, or for canning and preserving. The fruits are more round than pear-shaped, and ripen in mid-August to September. The trees useful characteristics include a natural resistance to insects and fire blight, its robustness and it’s extreme longevity. There are some specimens alive today that are 200 years old.
The Jesuit pear was brought from France to Historical New France in the 1600-1700’s by either Jesuit missionaries or French settlers. They have come to be recognized as the living symbol of the Detroit/Windsor region’s French Canadian community, particularly the French-speaking community. Many of the descendants of these early settlers still live in these communities today. There is much lore surrounding the trees. Some say they were planted in groups of 12 to represent the 12 apostles, with one standing apart, representing Judas. A few descendants of the original trees still stand today, some as old as 200 years. The nominator’s own 4x great grandfather, François Navarre, is said to have brought the small pear trees to the settlement that he founded in what is now Monroe, Michigan in 1787. There is a plaque in Detroit marking the site of the "Old French Pear Trees," where at one point, hundreds of them lined the shores of the Detroit River. Preservation efforts have been carried out more in Canada than the US: Agriculture Canada gene bank, Harrow Research Center, and the Horticultural Program at St. Clair College in Windsor. Robert Holland of Toronto has been a driving force in helping to re-establish the trees.
Eaten raw when ripe, they are extremely sweet and juicy, with a honey-like taste and hints of vanilla. Harvested just before ripening, they are traditionally canned in sugar syrup. Today, the Jesuit pear is not currently in production. Surviving trees are on private properties or culturally significant locations such as museums or municipally owned properties. The historical production area included Historical New France along the Detroit River and Lake Erie: Wayne and Monroe Counties in Michigan, USA; Essex County in Ontario, Canada. Especially the cities of Grosse Pointe and Monroe in Michigan, and Windsor in Canada. This variety is not native to the area, and likely came from France.
Unlike many fruit "varieties," Jesuit pear trees likely comprise considerable genetic diversity. This is due to historical propagation practices that probably included seeds resulting from cross pollination. While this is an area that begs future research, conservationists should consider the risk to the overall genetic diversity of the Jesuit Pear if only a few "famous" trees are propagated through grafting.