The Seckel Pear

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Pear from the west-tree

I wrote about our pear trees a few years ago.  At that time, if you check out the post (there’s a time-lapsed video of myself picking up pears), you will notice that the ground is more or less thick with pears.  That year, we picked up (and composted) push-carts full of pears — hundreds of pounds.  This year, it was a ho-hum year for fruit (and nuts) in general.

On the apple front, we are down to a single, mature apple tree.   The crabapple tree next our house was taken down in the spring.  The roofing company that redid our roof recommended that it be taken down as it was too close to the house and the roof.  It was likely a great move.  The heartwood of the trunk, about 12 inches above the ground was rotted and about half of the sapwood was intact; there were also many, many dead branches.  The other apple tree to come down was the tree we had gathered apples from for the cyser last season.  The heartwood on this tree was long gone and the entire weight of the tree was supported by the sapwood, which was beginning to give under the stress.  That said, if the cyser turns out, and we do not have need to make 5 gallons of vinegar, it will be a sort of unique, never-to-be-produce-exactly-again beverage.  The other apple tree that I gave little attention to, resided in the way-back woods behind our main yard.  It was tucked along our property line, behind a buckthorn thicket.  That tree died over the winter.  With one, mature tree, we have had zero useable apples.

The walnut trees on the property had a crumby year, as well.  Melissa is pleased that the dogs are not bringing in greasy-black bits of walnut husk, but it is sad to have not seen all the small green orbs growing over the course of the summer.  I suspect that at the peak time when the catkins on the trees were just right for pollination, it rained heavily and for an extended period and washed the pollen into the ground. In fact, a quick survey of the neighborhood walnut trees also show no nuts.  It will be a sparse winter for the squirrels; we will need to keep an eye on the chicken coop this winter for squirrels raiding the feed.

The cherry tree we planted the year after we moved into our house had a good year, a good for a tree just beginning to produce useable quantities of cherries.  We also had no plums this year.

But, back to the pears.  There was not a heavy load of pears on the two trees this year.  The east-tree, which I have yet to identify the variety of, had an alright year.  We have not had to pickup many, if any, of the fruit from the ground.   The west-tree, which, as best as I can tell is a Seckel pear tree, produced a decent amount of fruit.  About 82 pounds worth of fruit.  With mead and cyser in carboys, we decided to branch out into the more fruit-based hard beverages and less honey-based.  We’re going to tackle making a perry (pear cider) this winter.  The 82 pounds of pears are currently taking up space in one of the freezers.  There are still fruit on the tree; we’re hopeful to make the total an even 100 pounds before it is too late.

gardenersmonthly22meeh_page_009As I worked in the yard today, near the pear trees, I started thinking about the Seckel.  I thought about curious size of the fruit – quite small.  I thought about the particulars of this one tree – how old was it, who planted it, why was it planted in the location it resides in?  On a short break from the work I was attending to in the yard, I searched the internet for history of the seckel pear.  I knew that I would not find results on our Seckel, but I might find more information on the origins of the Seckel variety.  The results returned included a few tree nurseries that carry Seckel trees – many of the nurseries’ online catalogs all have very similar text that spins the mysterious origins of the Seckel.  Other results that were returned from the search included recipes that use pears as a primary ingredient in a dish.  Amongst the results was an article from a horticultural and rural life journal from 1880.  The Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturist Devoted to Horticulture, Arboriculture and Rural Affairs, Volume XXII, 1880.  The seckel is actually mentioned a number of times in this issue.  There is, however, an entire article on the seckel; titled: THE OLD SECKEL PEAR.

There is a print of an engraving of the the old seckel pear tree in the journal — surprisingly, our pear tree has the same harrowed look, complete with droopy, arching downward-swept branches.

So, for the reader’s amusement and enjoyment, the following the article.

THE OLD SECKEL PEAR.

BY JAFET.

I had heard from a friend, of the old, original
accidental seedling, the parent stock of all of that
ilk extant, and the story gradually infected my
imagination. It began to haunt me. I saw it –”

” In my mind’s eye, Horatio,” –”

standing like a sentinel down there in ” The
Neck ” among the dikes and ditches ; living
through slow and patient history; watching
through its ” two hundred years,” so the story
goes, and listening to the hum and stir of distant
life in the Quaker metropolis, and the growing
traffic of the two rivers that washed the meadow’s
foot more than one hundred and fifty years from
this 31st day of July, 1880.

gardenersmonthly22meeh-281” More than one hundred and fifty years ago”
–”say the “Neckers” –” the first dike was thrown
up to reclaini the meadows on which they and
their fathers’ fiithers have lived and moved and
had their being; fighting the waves at spring tides,
and the rheumatiz’ nipre at their leisure ; but
never much troubled with a dry time, even
though there be but a fraction of an inch of rain-
fall in a month, or a whole dry summer never so
long.

It is a fat land down there, and has its bless-
ings and its drawbacks like other places. A
hardy race grows and thrives, and feeds others
out of the rich alluvial, but lays its bones away
on higher ground, for

” water is a sore decayer of your whorson dead body.”

And SO they lay them down at last, on green
and gravelly slopes, afiir from the music of the
singing birds of their household groves ; and so
their sons and sons’ sons have come and warmed
the old homes and kept the old names and man-
sions awhile in the meadows, and then followed
on to the narrow house in the higher ground.
But this is wandering from the old Pear tree.
That, I had some trouble to find, of which more
anon.

The ” facts” above stated, expressed more in
the local vernacular, I had from an old Necker,
who did not dream himself, but set his listener
dreaming.

Who munched the pear, and thoughtlessly
dropped the core over the side of what vessel, as
she passed the “Back Channel? And when?
It must have been between 1682 and 1720 ; for
that core floated to fast land, seeded and inaugu-
rated its celebrated distinct vai-iety far inside the
old dike that more than one hundred and fifty
years ago first barred back the waters from their
accustomed flats. May it not as likely have
been in the first named year as at any time
in the interval between that and the latter? For
what is thirty-eight years, more or less, in the
life of a pear tree, whose ” more than one hun-
dred and fifty years” have to-day been resolved
out of its indefinite past? And who shall say it
was not Penu himself, as likely as any of his
fellow-voyagers, –” or as those in the few following
years, –” who cast overboard the unconscious seed
of the land-mark of the two centuries then to
come?

Up to the day noted in the first paragraph, I
had never seen the object of my lately awakened
enthusiasm. Nothing would do until I could set
eyes on it, if yet standing ; and if not, alas what
had I thoughtlessly neglected, for a lifetime!
My friend had described it as ” still standing
fifteen years ago, but with one-half decayed ofi”
the trunk, the balance a mere shell, supported
by props, and piously guarded with posts and
rails,” ready to fall and pass away forever. He
gave me a verbal notion of the direction and dis-
tance, relying more upon a reference for par-
ticulars to his description of his own visit
published long ago in the Gardener’s Monthly.
Neglecting this at the lime, I was not aware of
its more particular reference to exact locality.

His interesting article is well worth reading, and

will be found in vol. 7, page 44, Feb. 1865.

I had, therefore, a loose notion of the general
locality, comprising, perhaps, a couple of square
miles, anywhere within which it might be, and
over which I might have to roam vaguely and
guessingly. In that area there were, possibly,
many descendants of the old patriarch pear,
themselves aged; and one might risk being
sentimental over some decayed sample of several
generations later than the real, simon-pure-
great-great-grandfather of them all. My friend’s
verbal directions were months old, and, refracted
by my own unsafe keeping, were, as a guide,
about as reliable as young Launcelot’s directions
to Old Gobbo.

” Old Gobbo–” faster young gentleman, I pray yoa
which is the way to Master Jew’s?

Launcelot –” Turn up on your right hand, at the next
turning, but at the next turning of all, on your left;
–” marry, at the very next turning turn of no hand, but
turn down indirectly to the Jew’s house.”

Thus prepared (?) for the search, I started for
it overland, on the hottest day of this hottest of
Julys ; but was driven back by the heat, fotigue
and uncertainty of location, reinforced by grow-
ing lateness of the hour. So on the last day of
July I tried my second parallel, and attempted
to flank the position by water, taking the little
steamer at foot of Chestnut street, Schuylkill.
Making a demoralized landing at a rotten, half
burnt, plankless oil wharf, I reached land by
perilous gymnastics over the tops of bare wharf
piles, and formed again in good order. But a
Necker’s ” half mile” is a full mile and a half I
walked to and fro four miles, prospecting around,
and brought up* at a country hotel on the ” Old
Eope Ferry Road,” corner of a lane. Reader,
don’t try my route, but take the one I found out
since. It is very simple. A stage from Peter
“Wright & Sons, 307 Walnut street, goes all the
way twice a day, passing this point ; fare 75 cts.
round trip. And so cut your eye teeth on my
experience. It is easier.

A busy ostler was sponging a critter at a
trough. We had a talk.

Jafet –” How long have you lived in these parts ?

Ostler –” Boy an’ man, all my life, –” some forty
year.

Jafet –” Then perhaps you know of a very old
pear tree somewhere in this region.

Ostler –” The old Seckel d’ye mean ! Know it?
Ish’d think I orter; many’s the pear I’ve had
ofl’n it too. D’ye see that lane right wher’ yer
standin’? That big yaller house down ther’s John
Bastian’s, and he has the old Seckel, if’t has’nt
blowed over. But stop, mister, tha’ don’t ripen
jist yit, if that’s wot yer goin’ fer.

To think I should reach Mecca in this unsenti-
mental way, and not on a cloud, or the back of
a camel !

I found Mr. Bastian sitting on his porch. He
received me very kindly, and directed me to the
identical spot. Sure enough, there stood the
ancient of days and its surroundings, ” the old
stone house, the sloping meadow and the ditch.”
Eureka !

The half trunk was a mere shell when Mr.
Bastian first knew it forty years ago, and he says
it was “much the same as now.” At least half
the circumference is gone. At 3 feet 6 inches
from the ground, it measures 5 feet 4 J inches
around the half trunk and across the exposed
diameter. The diameter, Irom bark to bark
is 23j inches. I estimate the full circumfer-
ence when whole and sound, as having been
at least 6 feet 6 inches, 3J feet from the ground.
The fraction of all that remains of the old storm-
beaten, ancestral Seckel Pear is 26 feet in height.
It had about one peck of pears, when I saw it.

The old stone house must be one hundred and
fifty years old. It is of one storj” and attic, and
the walls are like a fort in thickness. Mr. Bas-
tian now lives in his more commodious mansion
near by on a rising ground. His son, who was
born in the old stone homestead, lives there now
with his family. There are many very old
homesteads all through the Neck. They are
perhaps, with the exception of the old Swedes
Church, among the oldest buildings remaining
in the city. Mr. Bastian has ‘owned the old
Seckel farm forty years. At the time he moved
there the late Thomas P. Cope told him that the
Seckel family had known the old tree for eighty
jears. Eighty plus forty makes one hundred
and twenty years to begin on. Perhaps some
one reading this article can furnish data of an
earlier experience, going backward from the
year 1760, which this gives us, –” and so verify the
tradition of ” more than one hundred and fifty
years and perhaps two hundred.”

 


Other issues of The Garden’s Monthly can be found on archive.org.

If you’re interested the origin story of the pear (from species-specific perspective), check out Origin, Domestication, and Dispersing of Pear (Pyrus spp.)  (pdf)

Alex Jokela

programmeranalyst with a flair for horticulture // I build data tools // ♥ data // assistant-overlord of a small poultry flock

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