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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Bradford Pear, Not the Best Tree for the Yard

Bradford Pear is a short-lived tree that has become an invasive plant in some communities.

Ozarks Gardening
Jim Long

Bradford Pear, Not a Good Choice for the Landscape

The Bradford Pear came about in the 1950s when someone at the Ag. Research Service in Glenn Dale, MD found an especially promising tree grown from seed collected in China. It wasn’t until the 1980s when the Bradford began to be available in nurseries and became the fast-growing fad tree to have in your yard.
Ailanthus, or Tree of Heaven

Back in the early 1900s, the fad tree all the magazines were advertising was the Ailanthus, or Tree of Heaven. “Fast-growing, excellent tree for homes,” the ads claimed. There was no mention of the fact that Tree of Heaven is either male or female and if you happened to have a female, the flowers stank to high heaven (which is supposedly where the name came from). We had one on the block where I grew up as a kid, and you could smell the sickly-sweet, cloying flowers all over town. (Read more about the problems this tree is causing across the middle U.S. here).

In the 1950s and ‘60s, it was the Ginkgo biloba tree, with its, “Neat little leaves that look like Chinese fans.” The attraction was the leaves were easy to rake with little mess to clean up and the tree could reach heights of 100 feet or more. Additionally it is a long-lived hard wood tree with specimens reportedly over 2,000 years old and still living, in China. People ordered them from nurseries and magazine ads by the millions, only to learn in a few years that they, too, are either male or female, and the blossoms of the female trees contained butanoic acid and smelled like rancid butter, or worse, when in flower. (You can’t tell the sex of a tree until it’s old enough to bloom, and not all trees are separate sexes, some trees have both male and female flowers on the same tree). Add in the fact the Ginkgo biloba can take 40-60 years to reach its full height, and the tree soon fell out of favor.

The next tree fad to come along was the Hybrid Elm, “An amazingly fast growing, beautiful tree for city boulevards and front lawns” claimed the ads. Unfortunately the Siberian Elm was often substituted, and that’s a very poor tree, Hybrid Elm is slightly better, but still is not the best choice in our region. Lots of us bought them, only to learn later that one good Ozarks ice storm left the trees so completely denuded of limbs that all there was left was a trunk.

But it’s the selling of the Bradford Pear that outshines all previous tree selling fads. The ads in the ‘90s claimed the tree was sterile, producing “little if any fruit” and “no messy pears on the ground in the fall.” They were promoted as the perfect tree for city streets, where the tree stayed in its, “pyramidal shape with glossy green leaves and attractive white flowers in the spring.”
City streets lined with monotonous Bradford Pear trees.

Cities bought Bradford pears in mass quantities, as did housing developers, homeowners and industrial parks. This seemed the perfect, fast-growing, no maintenance tree. 

Bradford pears were planted in such great numbers they’ve begun to cross and hybridize and unlike the claims of being sterile and never bearing fruit with seed, have shown to reseed themselves and are now considered an invasive species in some areas. Groves of the pests have grown up in ditches and alleyways. Masses of wild Bradford Pear have become a nuisance in some areas where they’re crowding out native species.

The primary flaw in Bradford Pears comes from a combination of fast growth and week wood, coupled with poor branch structure. They generally start breaking apart after only 20 years. The crotch, or where the branch and trunk meet, becomes weak and breaks apart in storms. With their short life span of 20 years or less, weak wood and the boring sameness of white flowers, Bradford Pears have fallen out of favor and we’re ready for the next “perfect” tree to come along.

To see what’s happening in my garden this week: jimlongsgarden.blogspot.com. Happy gardening!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

not a very happy chappie are you mate. what could be 'monotonous' about that line of pear trees in bloom ?

Jim Long said...

Putting up a line of trees all alike looks like someone had a lot of cheap trees to sell and not much creativity. Think how much nicer and interesting that line of trees would look, interspersed with some redbud, dogwood and hawthorn trees. The bigger issue is the trees have a short lifespan and will need to be replaced, after they start splitting apart and falling on tourist vehicles. There were lots better choices for landscaping than bradford pears. But you're right, if continuity is satisfying, then that is a lovely line of trees. To each his own and thankfully we all have different perspectives. Thanks for your comment, I'm sure there are others who will agree with you.

Anonymous said...

I think this information was very helpful. I see them a lot in my neighborhood and was thinking of purchasing a few. It is still a beautiful tree, especially when they are planted in a row.