Spring is fast approaching and across the country Bradford pears are among the first to bloom. They are popular landscape trees with their early blossoms, round shape and fall colors, but these trees also harbor several dirty little secrets.
Introduced to the U.S. In 1960, the Bradford pear took the country by storm. This hybrid of the Asian callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) was supposed to be the ultimate plant for homeowners and commercial applications. Lady Bird Johnson even made a huge show of planting one at the White House in 1966 and her endorsement started a boom of the frothy white-flowered trees. As with many things originating in China, problems arose. Flash forward to the end of the 20th Century and the resulting landscaping grief.
This tree was advertised as a fast-growing, sterile landscape jewel with a thick canopy of glossy leaves that provided four-season interest. It was often planted in long rows lining driveways and avenues because of quick growth, the reliably symmetrical shape and beautiful spring blooms. The perfect globe-shaped silhouettes only prompted more plantings. Unfortunately, the shape of this tree is also its downfall. Rapid growth and weak branch unions often resulted in the trees splitting and literally falling apart much sooner than their pitiful 20 year life span. The glorious rows of cookie-cutter fluff balls soon resembled war zones with only pieces and parts remaining, and that isn't even the beginning of the problems Bradford pears pose.
It was advertised that these trees were sterile and do not produce viable seeds and that is partially true. Bradford pears cannot pollinate each other, however it was discovered that any other pear tree can pollinate with a Bradford and the seeds are fertile. Birds relish the tiny, berry-like 'pears' and spread the seeds far and wide to take root and grow in our fields and fencerows. “So what?” you might ask, there's no harm. The problem is that Bradfords (and their relatives, Cleveland Select, Aristocrat and Capital, to name a few) are all hybrids, so the offspring do not resemble the parent, they revert back to their Chinese ancestor, the callery pear with wicked, nail-like thorns and weedy growth pattern. They not only reproduce by tiny seeds, the roots send up suckers that soon result an impenetrable thicket. These Bradford pear offspring choke out native trees and shrubs wherever allowed to grow and many states have placed them on Invasive and Noxious plant lists. They are considered a severe threat in many states.
Just because there aren't any obvious seedlings around the Bradford in your yard, doesn't mean it hasn't produced any. Those white-blooming trees you see in the fields nearby are its children. Native butterflies and insects don't use it as a host plant and the blossoms have the unpleasant odor of three day-old roadkill. Power companies despise this tree and even the National Arboretum (that had quite a few of them) has removed them from their property. However, these trees are still huge business for nurseries and big box stores. They are are cheap, grow quickly and appeal to the masses. A tree should be a commitment to the future and Bradfords and their kin have no future.
There are a number of native alternatives to this 'thorn in our sides' and responsible homeowners and landscape companies should explore other options before settling for a tree that is destined to be a problem. Carolina Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera), Serviceberry (Amelanchier aborea), Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus) or various Viburnums are all excellent native alternatives. So before purchasing guaranteed trouble that could damage your home when (not if) it falls, take a little time to see what else might work. If a Bradford only lives about 20 years, (and that's if it doesn't split before then) why invest time, money and space for something that you'll be replacing. It would be better for your landscape and the environment to avoid the mess.