When to pick fall and winter pears

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There’s no question among local home orchardists, that our climate is ideal for pear production. In Washington state, pears are the third most valuable tree fruit crop behind apples and sweet cherries and the tenth most valuable agricultural commodity overall. When combined with pear acreage east of the Cascade range, Washington’s fresh pear production is the largest in the United States. Chefs throughout the Pacific Northwest and around the world use pears for all parts of the menu, from appetizers to entrees to desserts. They are an excellent source of fiber and a good source of Vitamin C for only 100 calories per serving. And, they’re sodium free, fat free and cholesterol free.

Pears fall into two basic categories: fall pears, that do not need a storage period before they are ready to use, and winter pears, that will not mature properly unless they are given a resting period in cold storage immediately after picking. The fall pears are earlier ripening varieties such as Bartlett, Clapp Favorite and Orcas, while those that ripen later, such as Bosc, Comice and Highland are winter pears.

A little known fact about the pear is that it is one of the few fruits that does not ripen on the tree. Both fall and winter pears still look “green” at the time they are ready to pick. If you wait to pick your pears until they look ripe, with yellow skin color, they will be soft and soon rot in storage. In addition, since most pears ripen from the inside out, if left on the tree to ripen, many varieties will brown at the core—in other words, they are overripe in the middle. This is variety dependent but is particularly common in most fall pears. The Orcas pear is one fall variety that has not been plagued with this condition and ripens fairly well on the tree. However, if you want to store pears for a month or more, letting them ripen on the tree won’t work. The earlier harvested fruit on a pear also stores the best for a given variety, and like apples the later season varieties (winter pears) have the longest storage potential.

Here’s an easy way to tell when to pick. When pears are ripe the stems will easily separate from the spur (at the abscission layer) when the fruit is lifted. If you have to tug or pull to get the pear off, it usually is not ready. After picking, fall pears can be kept on a shelf at room temperature until ready to eat – when yellow color develops and the fruit begins to soften. Fall pears can be stored but usually do not keep for more than 4 to 6 weeks. Many people use their fall pears for canning and drying.

Winter pears should be put into some kind of cold storage (below 40 degrees F. down to 33 degrees F.) for at least three weeks. After that period, you can start to bring out the fruit as needed to soften up at room temperature. At first it may take 5 to 9 days before the pears are ready to eat; later on a couple of days at room temperature may be long enough. You can speed up the ripening process by placing unripe pears in a fruit bowl at room temperature near other ripening fruit like bananas.

One other tip is to record the day of harvest for your trees from year to year; usually they will be within a week of that harvest period each year. Start testing the fruit 1-2 weeks before the anticipated harvest date and before long you will be proficient at harvesting correctly.

For long term storage of any fruit, the key words are cool and ventilated. Cooling slows down the fruit respiration, which slows down senesence. Ventilation keeps ethylene and carbon dioxide from building up to damaging levels. Some people use old refrigerators set aside just for keeping fruit. If that is impractical, choose an area with low heat that does not go below freezing. A garage or shed, unheated porch, or dry basement area are possible locations. Avoid direct sunlight or areas with a wide range in temperature. Avoid confined unventilated areas.

Fruit can be packed in ordinary boxes lined with newspaper or other padding. Plastic bags without holes for ventilation should not be used as they can cause buildup of trapped ethylene, which will speed up ripening and shorten storage life, while excess moisture contributes to rot. Check periodically for rotten fruit and remove them at once. The old timers knew what they were talking about when they said that “one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.”

This column is printed as a service of the Washington State University Extension Office at Elma. Donald D. Tapio is the regional gardening and farming specialist for Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. He can be reached at (360) 482-2934 or tapiod@wsu.edu.