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Herb Lore: The nearly 400-year-old fruit tree that keeps giving

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Davis Dunavin
WSHU Public Radio
The Endicott Pear Tree in mid-April, covered in tiny buds that will eventually flower into pears.

The first colonial governor of Massachusetts planted a pear tree in the 1600s. It’s now believed to be the oldest cultivated fruit tree in the Americas — with an endearing history. It’s called the Endicott Pear Tree, and it’s tucked away behind a hospital in northeast Massachusetts.

It’s rooted on what is now the grounds of the Mass General / North Shore Center for Outpatient Care. It’s locked behind iron gates to keep out vandals. Metal bolts hold the trunk in place — and wires and cables secure the tree and some of its branches.

“All the branches, they all tell a different story,” says Rich Grant, an arborist with Mayer Tree Service who helps the hospital care for the tree. He runs his hands along the dark, gnarled branches, rotted in places.

“Where it’s rotted, it has the moss, the buds, the lichens growing off the side of it,” he says.

It’s late March — just after a good rain — and tiny buds just showed up along the branches a few days ago.

“Yeah, you can see the buds on the pear swelling up,” he says. “And they're the fuzzy buds, mostly the flowering buds, which produce fruit.”

So why spend so much energy to keep this tree alive? For one thing, it’s nearly 400 years old. And it has a colorful history. The tree was planted in the 1630s by John Endecott (the spelling has changed over the years). You could describe him as a quintessential Puritan. Historian Richard Trask says he was a pretty zealous one.

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Davis Dunavin
WSHU Public Radio
A plaque memorializing the Endecott Pear Tree.

“He was what you wouldn’t want to have as a judge or someone who was opposite you,” Trask says. “He was a very hard man who did not suffer fools gladly … and was kind of known as a very crusty Puritan.”

Endecott was governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony off and on from its establishment in 1629 to his death more than 30 years later. He settled what would become the city of Salem — later famous for its witch trials — and gave it its name. And he led a violent raid on an Indigenous village that was part of the Pequot War.

“The puritans came over here for religious liberty, but it was their religious liberty,” Trask says. “Any time that there was any dispute between natives and settlers, the settlers thought they owned everything and the Indians were squatters.”

Endecott wrote a whole essay about why it was evil for men to have long hair — he said it was contrary to God’s word and called long-haired men ruffians. It might have been a little hypocritical — every painting I can find of the guy shows him with a big mane of hair that flows down to his shoulders.

And something else made Endecott stand out — he had a green thumb. He built a farm on 300 acres of land in what’s now Danvers.

“Any settler at that time would establish a homestead which would have a cultivated area, uplands, woodlots and some kind of an orchard,” Trask says. “He apparently was a little more interested in agriculture than the average settler, and we’re told he established a very large orchard of pears and apples.”

No one knows if the famous Endecott Pear Tree came from a seed, or it was grafted from another tree. But according to a local account, Endecott planted the tree with his children and declared, “I hope the tree will love the soil of the old world and no doubt when we have gone the tree will still be alive.”

No one’s sure what made this tree special enough to warrant a declaration — and the story may be apocryphal. But if it’s true, Endecott got his wish. The tree outlived not just the rest of his orchard — but every other cultivated fruit tree in America.

A local minister gave President John Adams some of its pears — and Adams planted some cuttings in his garden. An aging Henry Wadsworth Longfellow compared himself to the Endecott Pear Tree — someone getting on in years, but who could still bear new fruit.

“I suppose the tree makes new wood every year, so that some parts of it are always young,” Longfellow wrote. “Perhaps this is the way with some men when they grow old. I hope it is so with me.”

And a poet named Lucy Larcom even wrote a poem about it for Arbor Day in 1890. It’s called “The Governor’s Tree.”

In the 1960s, vandals with hacksaws tore the tree apart. Only a six-foot stump remained. But historian Trask says the tree grew back and produced flowers the next year.

“It’s an interesting tree that just doesn’t want to give up the ghost,” Trask says. “It’s become an important symbol of heritage, strength and resilience — and is (an) actual living link between us in the 21st century and our founders back in the early 1600s.”

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Davis Dunavin
WSHU Public Radio
Arborist Rich Grant examines the tree's branches. Grant visits about once a month on average.

The Endecott Pear Tree is one of the only reminders now of Endecott’s old farm, along with a nearby cemetery. The Mass General / North Shore Center for Outpatient Care hospital is now responsible for it — and hires arborist Rich Grant to come around once a month or so to do a routine inspection.

“I just walk around once to check on it, make sure nothing is horribly wrong with it,” he says. “Knock on wood, nothing is.”

Grant says he’s tried the pears himself.

“They’re very hard and crisp, and a little bit tart,” he says. “They don’t taste particularly great.”

That’s why in Endecott’s time they were used mainly for tarts, pies and in drinks. Hospital employees here once made Endicott pear margaritas for a party. But good luck getting your hands on one now.

“We’ve tried to pick them the last few years, but somebody has been stealing the pears,” Trask says. “The pears grow and they’re just nipped off at the ends. It’s a mystery. I think it’s an animal.”

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Davis Dunavin
WSHU Public Radio
A scion of the original Endicott Pear Tree, planted in the hospital's healing garden in 2012.

A few hundred feet from the Endicott Pear tree is another much smaller pear tree. Hospital Director Elena Sierra leads me over to a scion of the original Endicott Pear Tree.

“It’s full of buds and branches, it’s branching out and it was a teeny-tiny cutting of the tree when we first planted it in 2012,” she says.

It grows in the hospital’s healing garden — an area for patients to relax and spend time with nature. A big row of windows looks out at the garden from the hospital.

“These are the infusion bays for the cancer center, so patients can look out for a half a day, several hours, receiving their infusions, and they get to have the very best views. And we designed it as such, to have these beautiful views to help them in their care,” Elena says. “I hope it helps them feel more peaceful and to relax, and then to think of some of the beauty in our world, and…. The patients, they are inspired by this, it’s a great story about life and renewal, and nature and power, and endurance.”

Trees can potentially live for as long as there’s someone to care for them. And there were many who have helped keep the Endecott Pear Tree alive — as a symbol of endurance. Grant, the arborist, hopes it will be around for many more generations — as will the new tree, with its special DNA.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.