Local gardening: Bradford Pears, it’s over

April 19, 2012 

Bradford pears were the loropetalum craze of the 1970s and remain popular today. With their cheap price and amazingly fast rate of growth, landscapers and gardeners alike planted them in every spot where a tree might possibly grow. Their white flowers, which are described as malodorous, appear en masse..

Add to that a propensity to fall apart due to small crotch angles and far too closely spaced limbs and you wonder why we still plant them by the thousands. The only nice thing I can say is that their dense foliage provides a good place for birds to nest.

Throughout the 20th century, USDA scientists collected hundreds of pounds of seeds (seeds, not fruits mind you) from Asian Callery pears, Pyrus calleryana; growing them in an attempt to introduce fire blight resistance to the common pear. Although the parent P. calleryana species is quite thorny and variable in its growth habit, the Bradford cultivar was selected for its very regular shape, disease resistance, beautiful fall color, and flowers that developed into tiny, hard sterile fruits which didn’t attract wasps or bees. It was vegetatively propagated and could not fertilize itself.

Frequent “Making It Grow” guest Durant Ashmore is on a campaign to alert us to the danger from bastardized seedlings of this cultivar as they spread across the Southeast. Bradford trees’ popularity was so immediate that plant breeders selected for other “improved” seedlings, knowing how gardeners have to have the newest and latest. This gave rise to such cultivars as Chanticleer, and Aristocrat, which were planted in any empty space not filled with Bradfords. The self-sterile flowers now were tickled pink when bees exchanged these slightly different pollens and sterility was overcome with a vengeance. Just like in Mendel’s peas, the genetic traits of the earliest generations were not lost, but just hiding, and the second-generation offspring sprout vicious spines, so tough they can puncture tractor tires.

Birds eat the seeds and distribute them as they fly across fields, rivers, and state lines. In the upstate where Durant works as a nurseryman and landscaper, the fallow fields no longer have a succession of pine, then oak and hickory. Alas, the aggressive and thorny seedlings resulting from these crosses completely dominate those areas, forming dense thickets which exclude any native flora. He adds that only a bulldozer with steel tracks can remove these growths. Their ability to resprout requires that homeowners must immediately paint cut stumps with an approved herbicide.

The University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health recommends we plant such beautiful and well-behaved trees as native crabapples (one of my absolute favorites), serviceberry (oh, my, do the birds love those red fruits), blackhaw viburnum, dogwoods, fringetrees, hawthorns, and silverbells. Even their names are lovely and their sense of reproductive decorum should earn them a place in your landscape.

Cut down those Bradford and seedling pears now. On second thought, just get the chain saw and herbicide ready – wait until after the eggs hatch and the baby birds fledge.

Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and is a co-host of “Making It Grow” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/

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