Election Section

Pear Tree Blossoms of White And Red After Cold Nights By RON SULLIVAN

Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 28, 2004

I’d been hearing it all day, as I worked: an odd, low, chuckling call, from somewhere outside my house. Not a bird, or at least none I could remember hearing; a dyspeptic cat? A toy? A really odd phone? A musical instrument, played badly? 

After dinner, I sat down to check my mail and Joe started the dishes. Then I heard a sort of strangled yawp, and a distressed call: “Come out here and tell me if you see this too…?”  

Our kitchen, on the second floor, has a big window that faces the gallery and stairs of the apartment block next door. Strolling calmly along that gallery was a chukar. I uttered my own strangled yawp—and then the chukar chuckled, and I realized what I’d been hearing all day. 

Now, the chukar is by no means native here. There are a couple of feral populations that were stocked for grouse hunters, but the closest I know of is way down around Panoche Valley, a long drive and a bad road from Berkeley. So seeing this big gray-and-tan chicken walking around the fire escape was a bit like seeing, oh, a zebra or a pangolin. It descended the back stairs and strolled around the parking lot, then our garage roof; it didn’t flee when I approached it with a handful of birdseed, but it never let me get closer than 20 or 30 feet either. It finally disappeared somewhere up the street, and I never saw or heard it again. It might have ended up where it might have been meant to, in somebody’s dinner. 

Only in hindsight did I realize I should have escorted the poor wandering bird around the corner to Grant Street, to the row of pyrus trees there. What else could a chukar be doing on the streets of Berkeley? Clearly, this was a partridge looking for his pear tree. 

Yes, there are lots of pear trees in Berkeley, but most of them don’t bear edible fruit. They’re flowering pears. Some of them are flowering right now, in fact, just a few white blossoms along with a sparse scattering of green leaves. Others have turned bright red and deciduous after the series of cold clear nights we’ve had. 

The difference is mostly in the species—Pyrus kawakamii, “evergreen pear” and Pyrus callyreana, which occurs in a bewildering variety of cultivars, the most famous being ‘Bradford.’ For a neat compare-and-contrast, check out the two blocks of Acton Street on both sides of Allston Way. 

There are pears a-plenty all over town, including in gardens. They’re handy to plant because, at least theoretically, they’re small enough to fit under powerlines. PG&E runs a “SafeTree” program that urges people to plant only short trees under powerlines; you can find their reps handing out rulers and erasers and such trinkets at garden shows and sales. They’re entirely correct, of course, in that planting a small tree will save some decidedly ugly and unhealthy pruning to clear the lines, years later; the problem is that evidently some lines are hung so low that you couldn’t count on a rosebush’s being short enough. Between that and the apparent necessity of making every residential lane safe for hugely top-heavy freight trucks, there seems to be less room for anything so gracious and inconveniently alive as a tree in our cities. 

If you have one in your garden, give it a little summer water, watch out for fireblight, and prune out only dead or crossing branches. 

Many flowering pears, especially Bradfords, do have one vice, a tendency to grow branches at narrow angles with included bark—bark that grows into the angle instead of rolling outward at the crotch. This weakens the limb, because it forces it away from the trunk and replaces sound wood besides. That’s why you’ll see older pears (especially ‘Bradfords’) pruning themselves, leaving nasty torn wounds. They generally aren’t big enough to be dangerous to those below, at least. 

I like them anyway. They flower in winter and early spring, when we need encouragement, and/or they sport glossy red foliage, also late in the year, like right now. The leaves are even pretty when they’re scattered on the ground. It’s not litter; it’s confetti!