By Kathy Conner Cornell
VCE Southside Master Gardener
If you knew that a tree was wrecking havoc with our woods, if you knew a tree was weak wooded and sooner or later it would split and come crashing down, if you knew that the flowers smelled like dead fish, wouldn’t you think twice about buying one for your landscape? Wouldn’t you expect the nursery industry to cease making this tree available? Unfortunately, the Bradford Pear tree Pyrus callereyana ‘Bradford’ is alive and temporarily well in many front yards.
This is typical damage that Bradford pear trees will experience throughout their life until they completely fall down. If don’t own one, please avoid planting this species. If you do have one, consider removing it for safety reasons.
There is no doubt that this tree was touted by Cooperative Extension Service many years ago as a perfect landscape tree because of its mass of spring blooms, nice oval shape and its brilliant red fall color. I can remember when I bought my first house I subscribed to the local paper. The County Extension Agent had a weekly article that I always read with interest. I did have a latent desire for gardening back then. He had one about the positive aspects of the Bradford Pear. So, I, like everyone else, bought one and planted it in my front yard and surrounded it with periwinkle, Vinca minor. Now I have enough knowledge to know those were both poor choices. Both are now considered invasive plant species to be avoided.
The Bradford Pear was considered to be sterile so would not produce fruit. Bradford pear trees are self-incompatible, meaning two Bradford pear trees will not produce a viable fruit. However, they will cross pollinate with other pear trees which produce wild thorny pear trees we see in our forest and edges of fields today, choking out native growth trees and shrubs. Later cultivars that were introduced to deal with the weak branching, such as “Chanticleer’, were not sterile and produced fruit that birds were very happy to consume and eliminate wherever they felt the urge. This brought seeds into our woodlands with fast growth so crowding out our important native species. Most pears require cross pollination from different cultivars that bloom at the same time for the best crop. A honey bee does not worry about if it a Bartlett or a Bradford pear blossom it visits for pollen.
Michael Dirr in “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” states that his newest rant “concerns the extreme number of escaped seedlings along highways, interchanges, abandoned fields and any open area. From early to late March along I-85. Athens (GA) to Chapel Hill (NC) pears seedlings own the landscape”.
Let’s deal with the weak wooded issue. Indeed, most of the introduced cultivars have a central leader versus the multi-stemmed Bradfords. But that didn’t resolve the weak wood issue, just delayed the inevitable. My husband and I were asleep one night when we were awakened by a loud whoosh and a thud. Bill asked me what that was and I told him it sounded all the world like a tree falling. Indeed, my Bradford was on the ground and missed our van literally by an inch or two. After the ice storm this winter, we had to travel to Danville and it seemed to give Bill pleasure to point out the fallen Bradford branches or better yet, a fallen tree. Folks, sooner or later, the tree is going down. You’d be wise to remove it before it does some damage.
One Bradford here and there won’t cause much of a smell. But in cities and towns where the tree is often overused, it certainly does smell like low tide in mid-summer. When we studied this plant during the woodies class, our instructor, Karen, said the flowers were smelly. I admit I had never noticed this in my tree. Some municipalities have banned Bradford pear trees for this reason.
There are some states that have restrictions on the sale of Bradford Pears. Just last week, South Carolina put the plant on the State Plant Pest List. This is a transition step since the plant is still being sold in the state. Legislatively, the Pyrus callereyana cultivars will be banned from sale or for a nursery to propagate in South Carolina on October 1, 2024. Right now, there is a Bradford Pear Bounty Program for SC property owners. You bring a picture of your felled Bradford Pear to the scheduled exchange event and you will be given a native tree replacement. Pyrus callereyana and its cultivars are the Invasive Plant List in Ohio so sales and propagation are banned. It is also on the Invasive Database in Texas but currently its use is not banned. The same applies to Maryland. In Virginia, a plant cannot be placed on the placed on the Noxious Weed list if it is currently sold in the state.
The best we can strive for is a strong education program to help gardeners understand the downsides to Bradford pears. There are many beautiful spring blooming native trees that make good alternatives. According to Invasives.org, there are “several native trees would make excellent substitutes for Callery pear, including common serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis), cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli), … although its availability may be limited currently”. White fringetree Chionanthus virginicus, Virginia Sweetspire Itea virginica and Blackhaw Viburnum prunifolium are three other species that would work and provide nectar for pollinators. To find sources, visit the Virginia Native Plant Society’s website at https://vnps.org/.
Pay heed to the words of Jason Fisher, Extension Agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources, “just don’t plant them, as important/more important is the invasive callery pear of which the Bradford is a cultivar and reaks overtaking our landscapes to date. Bradford pear was the industry’s effort to deliver a fast growing and eye-appealing spring bloomer to our landscapes. The words “fast” and “tree” in the same sentence, however has its consequences. For example, if you have ever cleaned up after an ice storm, only to have multiple daggers and fruiting spikes grab your legs as you drag endless limbs away, you will only repeat what has been said repeatedly by so many – don’t plant the tree.” If you enjoy pear blossoms in the spring, and enjoy the fruit in late summer, try growing some of the edible ones that do well in Virginia such as the Bartlett, Seckel, Anjou, Kieffer, just to name a few. The pollinators will thank you for planting one of these beautiful fruiting trees and you can still enjoy the abundant spring bloom of flowers, and the aroma of these flowers has never been obnoxious to me.
Blue Ridge Prism had a good publication entitled “Landscape Tree Gone Wild and Rogue”. The VCE Halifax Extension Office is now open. Masks and social distancing are required. If the door is locked, please knock. If you have gardening questions, you can continue to reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are unable to email, you can call and leave a message at the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at (434) 830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is routinely checked. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Make sure to get your vaccination and don’t plant Bradford Pears.