It sounded like springtime in December. Three dozen robins were singing and scolding on Christmas morning. They had gathered to feed on the fruits of a Bradford pear, an ornamental tree that was the darling of landscapers thirty years ago but is now black-listed by many gardeners and nature lovers.
Bradford Pear, Pyrus Calleryana, has an interesting history that began early in the 1950s when pear orchards in the Pacific Northwest were decimated by “fire blight,” a disease that kills fruit trees. Agricultural researchers discovered that the Callery pear, a thorny wild tree native to China, had rootstocks highly resistant to the disease. These researchers imported Callery pear trees and grew them in nurseries where branches from choice pear varieties were grafted onto their roots. This eventually saved the commercial pear business from being wiped out by fire blight.
One of the Callery pear trees that was grown in this program was sterile, had a beautiful shape, profuse flowers, and no thorns. This cultivar was named “Bradford” after its discoverer.
Bradford pear became a favorite landscaping tree in the 1980s. It had a lovely, symmetrical shape. It thrived in a variety of climates and soils. It even tolerated the polluted air and compacted soil next to city streets, shopping centers, business parks, and parking lots. Its shiny green leaves turned from yellow to orange to deep red and stayed on the tree until late fall. Its white blossoms made a spectacular show in early spring.
But all things age, but not always gracefully. As they matured, Bradford pear trees became problematic. They were short lived. Their narrowly forking branches and soft wood were prone to breakage. A windy spell would frequently tear a large Bradford pear tree apart. The clouds of white blossoms, while stunning, emit an odor that many people compare to rotting fish.
While the original Bradford variety was sterile, most of the Bradford trees you see now have been cross pollinated and bear small, pinkish-brown “pears.” Most of these trees also have thorns. If you park your car under one of the fruiting trees after a night of heavy frost, you may return later to find your windshield smeared with their thawing, fallen fruit. Robins, starlings, and other fruit-eating birds gorge on these little “pears” during late fall. The birds, in turn, disburse the seeds wherever they poop. Now Bradford, or rather Callery, pear trees grow everywhere.
Localities in several states have banned Bradford pear trees. People are urged to dig up and destroy Bradford pear trees on their property. Disposing of them isn’t easy. After a tree is cut, its roots must be destroyed before they send up new shoots everywhere. A tractor brush hogging a field can get thorn-slashed tires. Putting cut branches though a wood-chipper creates mulch which may contain pear seeds that sprout in the spring.
A wild Chinese pear tree once saved the American pear industry and then became a favorite landscaping tree. Now reverted to its Callery roots, it is a pervasive reminder of the often bitter fruits and sharp thorns of unintended consequences.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer