Sustainability Corner: The Bradford Pear Tree – A curse?

By Erika Teal

Member, Sustainability Committee

The Bradford Pear tree, with its show of dense white beauty, is one of the first blooming trees to announce the end of winter. We see them everywhere, in people’s yards, in parking lots, as road dividers.  We have many Bradford Pear trees on the Riderwood campus.

This tree was brought to the U.S. from China about 100 years ago as a solution to the blight that had befallen the pear orchards in the western states. The seeds of the Chinese callery tree were sent to the U.S Plant Introduction Station in Glenn Dale, MD. One tree in particular, grown from seed, was found to be an attractive specimen for ornamental purposes. It did not have the thorns of the callery pear and it was disease-free. It was chosen for mass production and was named “Bradford” after the Station’s former head. In 1960 the tree was officially released to the nursery trade, where it became widely popular. Streets were extensively planted with Bradford Pear trees, with their symmetric shape and glossy green leaves that present us with maroon and orange color bursts in the fall.

But, alas, not all that shines is gold. It was soon discovered that the Bradford Pear tree had a tendency to split. The reason was that all the major branches originate at the same point in the trunk, thus putting a lot of stress on the trunk. In a storm, it succumbs, and we end up with large branches and much debris in the street or yard. The tree was also multiplying profusely, even though it was thought to be sterile. The tree is sterile, but it cross-pollinates with other pear trees. In addition, it sends up thorny shoots from the roots and, if not cut down, they grow into full trees quickly, eventually forming an impenetrable wall of trees, choking out our native flora. New trees keep growing from the roots for two years after the tree has been cut down. Those are the real dangers and that is the curse.

Everybody has heard of Kudzu, which is now killing our trees in the South and cannot be stopped. We have to add the Bradford Pear to the list of dangerous invasive species.

A solution is needed to get rid of them at Riderwood or at least stop them from multiplying, to give our native trees a chance. There are several native trees that could take their place: service berry, redbud (there is even a white flowering type), dogwood, crepe myrtle and fringe tree, to name a few.

Photos by Erika Teal and Anne Riley

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