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OUTDOORS: Bradford pear not as pretty as it seems

One of the most popular ornamentals in the Southeast is the Bradford pear tree.

The Bradford pear is one of our most commonly planted ornamental landscape trees. Its rootstock, however, can spawn an invasive culprit and better planting choices are more environmentally desirable. (Photo courtesy Ala. DCNR)

The Bradford pear is one of our most commonly planted ornamental landscape trees. Its rootstock, however, can spawn an invasive culprit and better planting choices are more environmentally desirable. (Photo courtesy Ala. DCNR)

Early each spring, much of the Southwest Georgia landscape becomes increasingly dotted with beautiful flowering trees popping up along fence lines and in abandoned fields. From a distance, many of the trees are rather scenic, summoning thoughts of warmer days ahead and, to the hunters among us, dreams of gobbling turkeys and successfully wielded box calls. However, upon closer inspection it becomes apparent that some of these trees are not native flowering dogwoods or cherry trees, but thorny invasive impostors. Pretty though they may be, they simply do not “belong.”

These non-native invasive trees growing in nearly impenetrable thickets are in many cases undesirable Callery pears. Unfortunately, their presence here can often be related to one of the region’s most popular ornamental landscape plants.

One of the most popular ornamentals in the Southeast is the Bradford pear tree. Commonly planted along driveways and lawns, the tree’s uniform teardrop crown shape, showy white spring flowers, and brightly colored orange-red autumn foliage are very striking features. It is not uncommon to see multiple Bradford pear trees on a single lawn. They grow extremely fast, produce flowers in only three years after planting, and provide excellent shade all summer long.

Although these traits make it a favorite for many who want to beautify their properties, the Bradford pear brings with it some dark secrets. The growth form is such that the major branches fork at very narrow angles from the trunk. This trait, coupled with the fact that the wood is not exceedingly durable, results in splitting during periods of heavy wind or during drastic winter-storm events.

The original Bradford pear was cultivated in 1908 in an unsuccessful attempt to breed resistance to fire blight disease into fruiting pear trees. Although the fruits from most commercial varieties of Bradford pear trees are actually sterile, they can sometimes cross pollinate with other pears resulting in hybrids capable of producing viable fruits. This is the beginning of the real problem with the invasive, as birds and mammals relish fruits from these trees and disperse the seeds across the landscape.

Even though the cross pollinating is problematic enough, perhaps the most ominous “secret” pertaining to the Bradford pear is the way in which it is cultivated. The root stock used for Bradford pears is the aforementioned Callery pear from China. Even though the fruits from the above-ground Bradford pear tree might not be fertile, once the crown of the tree becomes damaged from wind, weather, or other phenomena, the roots begin to sprout voraciously. Sprouts begin popping up all around the tree. These sprouts are not young Bradford pear trees, but Callery pears, which produce reproductively viable fruits and form dense thickets of thorny trees in a very short time. Regrettably, these trees can tolerate moderate shade and do well in a variety of soil types, making them likely to invade almost anywhere.

There are effective methods for eliminating, or at least controlling, this invasive species. To begin, instead of planting Bradford pears for the spring flowers, plant natives such as flowering dogwood, Eastern redbud, magnolia, wild plum, or black cherry. Native flowering trees and shrubs can be very ornamental and there are numerous books and websites dedicated to promoting the use of native flowering plants for landscaping purposes.

If Bradford pear trees are recently planted, seedlings and shallow-rooted plants can be pulled by hand when the soil is moist. Smaller trees should be dug or pulled using a device similar in function to a Weed Wrench, which is designed to ensure the entire removal of the root system. As for larger trees, they should be cut down and the stump treated with appropriate chemicals or ground up to prevent resprouting by the root stock. Another option is to girdle the tree during the growing season (spring or summer) about 6 inches above the ground. Once the large trees are destroyed, it is imperative that the area around the stump is checked regularly for unwanted sprouting.

Spring is a wonderful time of year signaling the renewal of life with the budding of flowers, the buzzing of bees, and the gentle warming of the days as each morning passes. The unfortunate truth is that an increasing number of these spring flowers across the Southeastern landscape are the unwanted offspring of Bradford pear tree parentage, innocently planted to beautify our lawns and properties. As in similar situations throughout history (Chinese privet being just one) an action intended to beautify can often result in a very ugly situation.