At first glance, it seems pretty. Every spring around Washington, DC, the landscape is awash in white blossoms. But recently, there appears to be increasingly more white and less and less of other, native things. The culprit? The once popular Bradford pear has become an invasive species.
WHY WE LOVE BRADFORD PEARS
When Bradford pears hit the U.S. market in the mid 1960’s, they caused an immediate sensation. Blooming prolifically in early spring, they quickly became popular due to their rapid growth and abundant flowering. Suddenly aerial hedges of stately white trees were popping up everywhere, just like in the old cities of Europe.
In 1964, the New York Times had this to say,
“Few trees possess every desired attribute, but the Bradford ornamental pear comes unusually close to the ideal.”
Indeed, the Bradford pear checked all the boxes. First, the tree was medium-sized and had a pleasing, vase-like shape. Second, it was thornless and flowered longer than other pears. Third (and perhaps most importantly), the tree was sterile, meaning its seeds could not produce viable offspring.
Over the decades, Bradford pears were widely planted throughout the United States. Suitable for both urban and suburban areas, they tolerated a wide range of soils and were remarkably resistant to diseases and pests. And their prolific flowering in early spring made them the ‘perfect’ ornamental tree.
But let’s take another look at those ‘sterile’ seeds.
THE ORIGINS OF THE BRADFORD PEAR
Bradford pears were developed as a variant of the Pyrus calleryana, or Callery pear, a species of pear tree native to China and Vietnam. Callery pears are an aggressive, invasive species. In wild areas, they tend to dominate the landscape, forming dense thickets. They also produce three-inch thorns, making them ill-suited for the typical urban/suburban landscape.
Close-up of a Callery pear blooming in spring/Photo: shutterstock.com
The Bradford pear, on the other hand, was selectively bred to grow to just 15 – 25-feet tall. Impervious to a host of insects and diseases, it produces sterile fruits, meaning it can’t self-pollinate. These qualities, along with an extended bloom period, has made it, until recently, the perfect landscape choice for schools, parks and suburban gardens.
Here’s the problem. While Bradford pears can’t self-pollinate, that doesn’t mean they can’t cross-pollinate with other non-sterile Callery pears. And they’ve been doing so insatiably. These are the crossbreeds we see overrunning our landscape. What’s more, they’re producing masses of viable seeds that are being dispersed by birds, wind and small animals.
Callery pear fruits containing the seeds of future generations
THINGS ARE OUT OF CONTROL
And things are out of control. Nowadays, conservationists are joining forces with utility companies and government officials to try to stem the growing tide of white. Not only are these thorny thickets choking out other species, they are taking over extensive areas, producing thick stands of trees and shrubbery that are unfriendly to wildlife and birds.
In many areas of the eastern United States, Bradford pears now being regarded as an invasive species.
GREAT BRADFORD PEAR ALTERNATIVES
In Ohio, the Bradford Pear has already been declared invasive. Sales of the tree will no longer be permitted after 2024. Many other states are following suit. Resist the urge! They have a strong allure, especially when you’re excited about spring planting. But Bradford pears are contributing to the destruction of our local native species.
Consider planting one or more of these native flowering trees instead: Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Serviceberry (Amelanchier), or Redbud (Cercis canadensis). They’re guaranteed to light up your landscape.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
For more more information on the ‘curse of the Bradford pear’ as well as other native trees to plant, check out Missouri Invasive Plant Council’s ‘Plant This, Not That: Ten Native Trees to Plant in Place Of Callery Pear’.