Bradford Pears: A pretty nuisance

By on March 31, 2022

Spring is officially here, and with it come all the familiar sights, sounds and smells.

Familiar, however, does not always mean “good.” Such is the case with the Bradford Pear, a tree which has become ubiquitous to North Carolinians for its pretty white color and rotten-fish smell.

What many may not know, however, is that the Bradford Pear is not native to North Carolina or to America at all. Bradfords are a cultivar of the Callery Pear, a tree native to China and Vietnam which was brought to the United States in the early 1900’s. Selectively breeding for disease resistance brought about the Bradford Pear we know today.

Jarred Driscoll is a Regulatory Weed Specialist with NCDA&CS, in charge of handling noxious weeds in the state. He said that initially, Bradford Pears were not an invasive threat.

“It was some time in the 1960’s or so that ornamental varieties were starting to be released. One of the first to be released were Bradford pears, which was fine because Bradfords were actually sterile to begin with,” he said. “Subsequent varietal releases to mitigate the shortfalls of Bradfords, like their weak limbs, ended up cross-breeding with Bradfords and nullifying that sterility.”

Several decades later, Bradfords have spread so much that they’ve become hard to miss. The trees grow quickly and spread easily, and they far out-compete other native tree species due to a lack of natural predators and an innate hardiness against disease. That, plus their unpleasant smell, inedible seeds and tendency to break during high winds, makes for a problematic invasive species which chokes out native trees and can even create food deserts for birds and other small animals.

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).

While NCDA&CS does not regulate Bradford Pears, there are actions that landowners can take to help with the problem. The best is also the most obvious – cut down and dispose of the trees, applying an appropriate herbicide to the stump. If the tree is not too big, it is also possible to dig it up completely.

An initiative from the NC Forest Service, NC Cooperative Extension, NC Urban Forest Council and NC Wildlife Federation is looking to make a dent in the Bradford Pear population. Known as the “Bradford Pear Bounty,” this program invites North Carolinians to sign up for an event in April during which Bradford Pears can be exchanged for native trees to plant in their place. Due to overwhelming response, registration is currently paused while organizers evaluate the supply of native trees to hand out, but interested citizens can learn more and look for updates online at https://www.treebountync.com.

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  1. Jeff Rose, CFP®
    March 31, 2022

    I can hardly stand the smell of that tree. Absolutely gorgeous but the stench.. whew!

    Another tree that has a raunchy stench is the Callery Pear. It’s hard to say which one smells worst.