Pear breeding efforts focus on rootstocks

08/22/2014 10:30:00 AM
Tom Karst

Wenatchee, Wash. — While new pear variety development can’t compare with apples, part of the blame may lie with consumers.

Introducing a new pear variety is difficult, because consumers seem resistant to new varieties, said Tim Smith, extension educator for Washington State University.

“The public seems to demand a bartlett, and you are taking a big risk if you grow something other than a winter pear or a bartlett,” he said.

Kate Evans, a fruit breeder and associate professor with Washington State University, said the state’s breeding program isn’t ignoring work on pears.

“We have been trying to start a rootstock breeding program,” Evans said.

She said there is more interest from the industry in Washington on rootstock breeding for pears than new variety development.

“One thing we hear from our growers is that they are very reluctant to come in and plant a new orchard with a different scion variety when they are still stuck with using the same rootstock,” she said.

Some pear-producing countries use quince rootstock, a dwarfing rootstock. In those regions pear production looks totally different than in the Northwest, she said.

“They can keep the vigor down, they can grow the fruiting walls and you can eventually mechanize pear pruning and picking in the same way you can with apples,” Evans said.

While that is unobtainable right now in Washington — the quince rootstock is not considered sufficiently winter-hardy for the Northwest — that is the goal.

Many varieties of quince rootstock are now being tested for winter hardiness in Oregon, and those rootstocks could be used in breeding.

Pears also are slow to get into production on vigorous rootstock, Smith said.

Production and dwarfing aren’t linked as they are in apples.

“A lot of times we find that production and dwarfing is not linked like it is in apples,” he said.

The more dwarfing of apples trees, the more consistent is the flowering and the more productive the tree is per unit of area, he said. When you shrink a pear tree down, it often yields less, he said.

Some growers are planting pears on a semidwarfing rootstock on a 6- by 14-foot spacing, which is a lot tighter than the 18-by 20-foot industry standard.

“They get into production soon, and they have high consistent production,” he said.

Still, Smith said that hasn’t been enough to compel people to get out of mature orchards.

However, most people planting pears are using the new configuration. Other than transferring pear production from other parts of the state to the Wenatchee region, Smith said there hasn’t been a lot of expansion of acreage.

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