Eco Talk: The perils of the Bradford pear tree
ECO TALK

Eco Talk: The perils of the Bradford pear tree

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Bradford pear trees

As I write this column today, I am thinking about spring and looking forward to the flowering trees when spring does arrive. I am hopeful, as the up-and-down temperatures of this winter have caused some trees that bloom early to have their flower buds start to swell. I am sure we can remember some springs when the flowering trees either did not flower or their flowers were fewer in number than normal because a hard cold snap that damaged the swollen flower buds.

One of the trees I used to look forward to seeing is now considered by some, and justifiably so, to be an invasive species. Unfortunately, the Bradford pear, also referred to as a callery pear, was planted just about everywhere in the 1990s because of its dense cone shape and white flowers. I recall seeing them everywhere, and how pretty the trees were when flowering. These trees were also chosen, at one time, as the urban tree of the year!

Since then, we have learned that these trees, in spite of their visual appeal, did not come without problems. Imported from China in the 1960s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an ornamental tree, they produce an unpleasant scent when flowering. Also, the branches and even the trunks are very weak and can break under snow, ice and even a strong wind. To counteract this weakness, other varieties of the Bradford pear were quickly introduced.

At the time of their introduction as an ornamental tree, it was assumed the Bradford pear trees were sterile and would not produce any fruit. Part of that was correct, they do not produce fruit. however, as the newer, stronger varieties were introduced, it was later learned that they would cross-pollinate with the older varieties, and now they have become an environmental threat in eastern forests. Apparently, the newer varieties of Bradford pears would produce fruit that birds would eat, carry into the forest and deposit the seeds, which would grow.

As the seeds grow into seedlings, the new plants carry the older genetics of the older callery pears, which produce thorns measuring up to 4 inches. It is reported that these thorns are very sturdy and can even destroy tractor tires! Once established, the thickets take over native forest trees like dogwoods, maples, oaks and redbud. Many of these native tree species produce fruit that is nutritious and palatable to birds and other animals, while the callery pear fruit has little nutritional value.

So now you may realize you have a problem growing in your landscape and want to get rid of it. Suggested steps are to first cut the tree down and grind the root out. They will produce shoots or suckers from any remaining root pieces, so you will need to be vigilant and mow them off. They will continue to send shoots up for at least two years before all the root reserves are exhausted. Be vigilant!

Once the shoots have stopped, consider replanting something more environmentally beneficial, such as maple or other shade trees. Redbuds or serviceberry will provide spring flowers, and Japanese maples are visually appealing. Many landscapers realize the damage the Bradford pears are causing and will not plant them. Recognizing the serious environmental problems the Bradford pears were causing, the state of Ohio passed legislation in 2018 stopping the sale or distribution of any callery pears by 2023.

By the way, there are reported to be about 3,000 species of pear worldwide. Pears are relatives of apples and are a member of the rose family. They are native to Asia and Europe, and are reported to have arrived in America with the colonists when New England was settled in the 1600s.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that I will write about an invasive species that we should be aware of. Invasive species are a significant problem all around the world. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, invasive species are costing the U.S. billions of dollars in damages each year.

While this is staggering, if we each take time to learn about invasive species and then take steps to control those we can manage, such as removing Bradford pear trees even though they are pretty to look at when flowering, we may be able to stem the loss of valuable native species.

Judy Wright is the senior agriculture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Seneca County. For more information, visit senecacountycce.org or call (315) 539-9251 ext. 109.

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