Thursday, February 14, 2013


Decades ago my husband and I bought our first home. It was located near Lake St. Clair where the early French first settled, but I had little knowledge of them at the time. We were young, first time home buyers. It was May. The first home we looked at greeted us with a cloud of fragrant pink and white blossoms in the backyard. Enchanted by an orchard of apple, plum, and a single pear tree, we bought the place on the spot.

The apples we soon discovered were riddled with worms. No matter how much or how often we sprayed those apple trees, we could not defeat the little buggers. Apples fell to the ground, deformed and inedible––food for the birds and bees and insects, until we raked them into a garbage bag and sent them to the curb on trash day. Then the plum tree was overtaken by some kind of grasshopper and had to come down.
The pear tree however, was awesome. Not a bug to be found. Withstanding Michigan's extreme heat and cold, without spray, extra water or fertilizer or pruning, it bloomed into white blossoms that produced bushels of tasty ripe pears every August.
We left that house many years ago, but after researching my Last Lord of Paradise book series about the early Michigan French, I started thinking about that pear tree. Could it have been a descendant of the Jesuit Pear trees––Trees planted more than 200 years ago by Jesuit priests with seeds brought from France? Some experts call the Jesuit Pear trees a legend, they say that the orchards were simply planted by the French habitants...But others do not agree. 

According to an article in Botanical Electronic News from 2008, Cultivated Pears in Canada: Past & Present, the first pear trees in North America were planted by Jesuits.

"Pears originated in Asia, and are believed to have been cultivated for thousands of years. Although three species are cultivated in Canada, there are no native North American species. The "Common Pear," Pyrus communis, was introduced during the very early stages of settlement. The first trees were planted as crops in the early 1700s in the eastern Canadian wilderness. These early pears came from France and are now called "Jesuit Pears" or "Mission Pears" because they were planted by Jesuit priests in orchards at the missions and forts in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, along the St. Lawrence River, the Niagara River and particularly along the Detroit River."

The Jesuit Relations, a seventy volume set of journals and letters written by the Jesuits, shows their interest in the possibilities of agriculture and fruit trees in New France.

In Volume I, 1610 they write about the Native's agriculture, and that Port Royal on the Atlantic Ocean does not contain much fruit, but they have hopes that one day it will yield all that France yields.

"They also have excellent hemp, which grows wild, and in quality and appearance is much superior to ours. Besides this they have Sassafras, and a great abundance of oak, walnut, plum and chestnut trees, and other fruits which are unknown to us. As to Port Royal, I must confess that there is not [19] much fruit there; and yet the land is productive enough to make us hope from it all that Gallic France yields to us."

Vol. VI of The Jesuit Relations shows a letter dated 1634 from Quebec, written by Fr. Paul le Jeune, to his superiors in France. It confirms the Jesuits experimented with planting fruit trees.

"As to the fruit trees, I do not know how they will turn out. We have two double rows of them, one of a hundred feet [148] or more, the other larger, planted on either side with wild trees which are well rooted. We have eight or ten rows of apple and pear trees, which are also very well rooted; we shall see how they will succeed. I have an idea that cold is very injurious to the fruit, but in a few years we shall know from experience." [page 75]

By 1736 they write of Detroit and how well fruit trees grow there.



"Detroit, at the forty-second degree of Latitude, is situated between Lake huron, and Lake hérié This stretch of country is the Finest in canada; there is scarcely any winter, and all kinds of fruit grow there as well as they do in france."

The French of old Detroit called their orchards the Apostles, because they planted their pear trees in rows of twelve with the Judas tree set separate from the rest. 

There was a well known group of these "Apostles" in Detroit's Waterworks Park. The last one, pictured above, had to be taken down in 1938. But descendants still dot the landscapes of Grosse Pointe, Downriver, and Windsor Ontario, and the Canadians are intent on preserving the species. 

In the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America, Marcel Bénéteau of University of Sudbury, Ontario tells us about these remaining ancient giants.

"One venerable specimen, located near Harrow, Ontario, estimated to be over 200 years old, is 12 metres (40 ft) high with a trunk measuring 5.7 metres (18.7 ft) in circumference. Others found in Windsor and in the village of Rivière-aux-Canards have nearly reached such colossal dimensions. Despite their great age and their sometimes very advanced state of decay, most of these trees still produce, year in and year out, a large number of tiny, sweet, slightly spicy pears.Their rather more round than pear-shaped fruit ripens in mid-August."

"... During the 300th anniversary celebrations of the founding of Detroit, a group of area French speakers founded a tree nursery, in order to provide pears anyone interested in propagating the

There are also some great photos of these old trees with Marcel Bénéteau's article.

Ok, so maybe my pear tree wasn't 200 years old. But the fruit looked like the Common Pears pictured above, and the tree looked like the ancient one in Detroit's Waterworks Park.
I can still wonder. :)


PS. I liked the story of the Jesuit Pear trees so well that I included an orchard of "Apostles" in The Last Lord of Paradise.