Street Trees

The perry pear trees of St. John’s Villas

Not far from Archway tube station, just off the Holloway Road is a street named St. John’s Villas lined with imposing early Victorian houses on one side and a later, more run-of-the-mill terrace on the other. The street is a cut off Holloway Road heading towards Hornsey Road and like many 19th century city streets follows earlier land boundaries now long-forgotten. The street is remarkable for its handsome and unusual Sand pears  (Pyrus pyrifolia). I first noticed the trees and their unusually large russet-apple type fruits in 2007 when a huge crop fell on resident’s Volvos and a slippery pomaceous pulp started fermenting on the pavements and in the gutters.

Unknown Perry Pear variety (Pyrus_communis) St. John's Villas
Fruit swelling ready for the annual North London pear drop

This rare fruit event excited the residents in to opposing camps of those who wanted the council to fell the offending and potentially deadly trees, and those who saw the crop as something to be cherished. This quintessentially English middle-class story of tree-hugging north Londoners was soon picked up by the august organ that is the Daily Mail who lapped it up and spat out an over-weaning local council health and safety scare story.

Four years later and the trees are thankfully still there. Now the council picks the fruit each autumn (not since 2007 in such abundance) and local residents make use of them. Apparently one group has even made Perry (like ‘Pear cider’, but not sold in Tesco and made with pears). I went to check on the crop this past weekend and a local casually asked if I was interested in the pears – I was obviously not the first to make the pilgrimage to St. John’s Villas.

There are seven pear trees that were pruned in the spring so this year’s crop is minimal but is ripening nicely. The fruits are large and will be ready within weeks – I shall be looking out for the looming Islington council pear bounty.

Perry pears (Pyrus_communis) ripening on the tree
Strange fruit: Juicy drupes in the branches of a famous pear tree, St. John’s Villas, Archway, London

The trees make me wonder. They were obviously planted on the street several decades ago – they are perhaps 50 years old but why was this (unidentified) variety chosen? Who planted them? There are pear trees used as street trees elsewhere locally (with spectacular spring blossom) but not this rare species.

I like the theory put forward by the resident I got chatting to: before the houses were built the area was orchards, and so perhaps these trees are directly descended from an old and now rare variety once common in these market gardens providing Londoners with a refreshing and unusual brew.

There are many unanswered questions, not least how these trees got here and I hope, before the controversial trees disappear, cuttings are grafted onto young roots so the strange fruit will continue to fall for generations.

Check out the for sale signs – pear trees a factor in house prices?

There’s more fruity photos on my Flickr

4 replies on “The perry pear trees of St. John’s Villas”

[…] This part of London has a historic connection with fruit-growing, another good reason to protect this rare survivor. Before the Victorian railway-powered city consumed the green slopes to its north, the area was well known for its orchards. A faint echo of the past survives in some of the local street tree plantings – you may be interested to read my earlier post about the perry pear street trees in nearby Holloway. […]

[…] There are seven Sand Pear trees in this street, an unusual choice of fruit tree, as they  produce particularly large and abundant fruit. In 2007 there was a particularly splendid crop of fruit. As no one knew what to do with it, the pears splattered onto residents’ cars and turned the pavement into a slippery mess. This highlights one of the problems of fruit-bearing street trees – if no one harvests the fruit, the result can be piles of fermenting crab apples or rotting plums. On my street, a neighbour spends much of the time in autumn sweeping up slushy crab apples. At any rate, in St John’s Villa some residents wanted the trees cut down, while others were ready to link arms to protect them. In the end, the council agreed to harvest the pears, and some of the residents took to making perry, a kind of pear cider. A win/win solution for everyone, I’d have thought! When I visited the road was quiet, except for the chirping of baby blue tits from one of the nest boxes, so it seems that the Pear Wars have come to an end, at least for now. For more on this story, have a look at Paul’s blog here. […]

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