The beautiful Bradford pear: In the eye of the beholder

By on April 9, 2014

The Bradford pear is widely planted as a landscape tree (left), but has since become an invasive tree, as seen along these roads near Raleigh (right).  Images: Dan Tenaglia, Missouriplants.com, Bugwood.org (left image); Kelly Oten, NCFS (right images).

The Bradford pear is widely planted as a landscape tree (left), but has since become an invasive tree, as seen along these roads near Raleigh (right). Images: Dan Tenaglia, Missouriplants.com, Bugwood.org (left image); K. Oten, NCFS (right images).

After months of cold, ice and snowpocalypses, the first signs of spring are a welcome sight to North Carolina. Along with tulips popping their pretty heads up, the white, fluffy flowers of the Bradford pear tree are among the first bloomers, alerting North Carolinians that warmer weather lies just ahead. Yes, North Carolina, spring has finally arrived!

The Bradford pear is often chosen by landscapers. Along with being one of the first spring bloomers with gorgeous white, clustered flowers, it also has a rich color in the fall. It is a fast-growing tree, yet maintains its idyllic oval and symmetrical shape as it grows. The trees themselves do not get very large and are an ideal size for many urban settings.

However, beauty does not last forever. Because of the acute angles at which the branches grow, the branches are weak and split easily in moderate to high wind speeds. Not only does this take away from aesthetics of the tree, but it can be a hazard to people passing by/under the tree or to nearby property. In the Piedmont area of N.C., Bradford pears peak blooms occurred from mid-March to early April.  They are currently losing their blooms in exchange for leaves.

Beauty may be skin deep as well. While the appearance of the tree is highly desirable, the smell that accompanies the flowers is often not described the same way. Likened with the smell of fish and other foul odors, it causes many people near a Bradford pear to wrinkle their nose and ask: “What’s that smell?”

The kicker to all of this is that the tree is now considered an invasive tree. Native to China and Korea, the Bradford pear is a variety of the Chinese callery pear introduced in the 1960s. It was originally bred to be seedless and sterile since it cannot self-pollinate. But, as the fictional Dr. Ian Malcolm from “Jurassic Park” says: “Life finds a way.” Additional cultivars of the Chinese callery pear were released for plantings. Because the trees are only incapable of pollinating with the same cultivar, the arrival of additional varieties led to cross-pollination, fruit formation, and thus, viable seeds. Seeds are easily dispersed by birds, which consume the seeds and deposit them in droppings a variable distance away. The invasive callery pear tree, which has thorns, can be seen along highways and are quite conspicuous when in full bloom.

So when it comes to the Bradford pear, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Many still consider this an ideal yard tree, while others may go so far as to consider it a nuisance. It is certainly on the “no plant” list for those concerned with forest health in North Carolina, and both the good and the ugly about this tree should be considered before planting.

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