Is it time to end our romance with the darling of suburban landscapers?
Time was, nearly every Southeast subdivision hopped on the Bradford pear train. Instantly popular, the trees were touted as disease-resistant, adaptable, and inexpensive. A 1964 New York Times article heralded it as a near perfect ornamental tree while developers from Winchester to Williamsburg snapped them up by the tractor trailer-full.
Today, the truth is out: Bradford pears, a cultivar of the Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), are invasive, inferior, and destructive. Never mind its prolific, cotton-ball blooms and spectacular fall foliage. What looked too good to be true turned out, well, too good to be true.
“They are unreliable trees,” says Scott Douglas, ASLA, the director of the Hahn Horticulture Garden at Virginia Tech, who also teaches in Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “Because of their poor branching structure, they are prone to breaking in wind or heavy snows.”
Older Bradfords fall apart, damaging the homes and gardens they’re intended to beautify. And the flowers? Their scent is more fishy than floral. What’s more, Bradfords are food deserts, providing minimal value to birds or insects. To top it off, they’re invasive, colonizing wherever their seeds fall—in farmland, ditches, or riverbanks, edging out natives and choking out any species in their way.
South Carolina, the first state to ban Bradfords, has announced a bounty program: bring a photo of your felled pear and they’ll give you a native species to plant in its place. Ohio has also issued a ban. And in Texas and Maryland, Bradfords are on the invasive databases. While the trees are still widely available in nurseries across Virginia, arborists say it’s time to rethink our love affair with the Bradford pear.
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue.