Saturday, February 12, 2011

Don't Pick on the Pear!

I often have conversations with many of my fellow Master Gardeners and other gardeners about planting native species, or don't plant this or that, due to certain conditions. One of the big ones I get fussed at is my defense of the poor Bradford Pear. I know they have their problems, but I think they are also getting a bad rap.
Bradford Pears are a variety of a pear native to Korea and China, Pyrus calleryana, which was first introduced to Western horticulture in 1908. The actual cultivar 'Bradford' dates back to 1963, when the USDA introduced it commercially. It was first brought here in 1919.
The tree was supposed to be the perfect street tree, with profuse early bloom, a restricted pyramidal shape, and good fall color.
If you have never seen them in bloom, look at this:
Pretty nice huh?
I will admit, there is some objection to the odor all those flowers put out, but I don't find it that bad.
Fall Color? Check this out:

Many landscapers, and homeowners agreed with this thinking and today it can be found almost everywhere.

So why then do so many people have a problem with this tree?
A combination of plant physiology and physics makes the Bradford very susceptible to wind and ice damage. The angle of the Bradford's branches is generally too narrow, and as the tightly-crowded branches grow in girth, the tree begins to push itself apart. At the first strong wind or heavy ice storm, the tree self-destructs.
Average lifespan is about 20-25 years.
Fully grown the Bradford Pear grows 30 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide. It is a very fast grower, averaging 1.5 feet per year. This is part of the problem with it having weak wood. They grow best in full sun but will tolerate part shade. It can handle all kinds of soil types and will tolerate drought and very wet conditions for a short period of time.
Bradford Pear is fairly resistant, although not immune, to most diseases, including fire blight. Fire blight is a common problem of ornamental and edible pears. This is where the ends of twigs and leaves become blackened as the disease progresses further down the branches. The Bradford pear is relatively free of insect problems.
One reason I have these discussions and get fussed at with people is because Pyrus calleryana and other varieties of ornamental pears are on the Invasive Plant Pest Species of South Carolina list. Although the ‘Bradford’ pear was originally bred as sterile and thorn-less, they readily cross-pollinate with other varieties of callery pears, and subsequently produce fruit. The ripened fruit are eaten and spread around by birds, which supposedly results in very thorny thickets of wild pear trees. I personally have not seen these thickets.
Yes, they do produce fruit:

And the birds do love them! Check out this Cardinal enjoying lunch in one of my trees:

They also love to nest in them. A female Dove made her home in mine this past April:

Aren't we suppose to help our fellow creatures? That is always my argument. You feed birds sunflower seeds, those things pop up EVERYWHERE, but nobody argues about that! I know, they are annuals and will die in the Winter, unless they go to seed?!
Back to the Bradfords. I have seen old ones and they look great! One of the keys is to pick one out with a strong central trunk, kind of like these:
These are my trees also.
I am sure I will get arguments opposed to my blog. There are many more trees out there that can and will give you the same effect. Yes, there are. There is also many more ways to feed the birds and yet people insist on feeding them millet. THAT stuff is invasive and messy! So to each their own.
I will give you a few substitutes however. Flowering Crab Apples (Malus spp.) and Japanese Cherries,(Prunus serrulata) such as 'Kwanzan', are good alternatives. For smaller trees, Dogwoods (Cornus florida) and Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are excellent.
As for me, the Bradford Pears I planted are now large, provide much needed shade, food for the birds, and places for me to put many of my hanging potted plants. So, they are staying!
Happy Growing!


  1. I'd invite you to come to the upstate and see whole fields where the native trees are being choked out by the non-sterile offspring of these invaders. . . they're everywhere up here.

  2. Hey Laurie,
    Sorry it has taken so long to respond, My e-mail failed to tell me you commented.
    Seriously, what part of the upstate are you in? I travel up that way occasionally and I would really like to see these.
    Please don't think I am being flipit, I have heard stories like this and have yet to see them.