How Bradford Pear Trees Wreak Havoc on Native Plants

No, it wasn't because of the pungent smell. This flowering pear tree can take a toll on the environment.

Bradford pear trees are the trees people love to hate. Notorious for their funky-smelling flowers, these blooming trees are a sign of spring in many placesbut that's not to say they're welcomed with smiling faces. The invasiveness of Bradford pears has become so bad that a county in Kentucky is offering a free alternative tree to anyone who cuts down a Bradford in their yard. Years ago, I decided to pass on the rumors of this infamous Callery pear cultivar and plant one anyway, because I believe every plant deserves a chance. Plus, how beautiful are those white flowers? Here's what I learned.

white flowering bradford pear tree on green grass with sidewalk
Image courtesy of Adobe Stock. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Bradford Pear Tree History and Issues

Bradford pear was introduced in the mid-1960s and soon became the most popular cultivar of callery pear (Pyrus calleryana). In fact, it's so popular that the two terms are pretty much used interchangeably by the public. It was a favorite of landscapers and municipal planners alike. The trees were covered in white flowers in spring and you could look forward to pretty fall foliage as well. Bradford pear trees grew fast, took any kind of soil without complaint, and it was pest-resistant and disease-free. It was even described as one of the best cultivars of trees developed in the 20th century.

At first, the shortcomings could be written off. The Bradford pear tree was supposed to be small but ended up growing 40 to 50 feet tall. And the flowers had a sickeningly sweet aroma that hung in the air when the trees were planted in groups (a common practice with street trees). Other flaws were harder to ignore. Bradford pear trees had a structural challenge, with a bunch of weak branches arising from the same section of the trunk. If a winter storm didn't make a wreck of the tree, the poorly engineered branches would do it themselves. The trees literally fell apart after 20 years.

The biggest pain became evident: Bradford pear trees were crossing with other flowering pear trees. Even worse, the offspring reverted to the characteristics of the species, which meant tire-puncturing thorns and thug-like thickets that crowded out native plants.

bradford pear tree white flowers and green leaves

My Experience With Bradford Pear Trees

One solution to the issues with Bradford pear trees was to use sterile cultivars that wouldn't reproduce. I bought one, a Cleveland Select, which had an upright, columnar shape that promised to be better behaved. Plus, it still had great fall foliage—a mix of burgundy and yellow in mid-November after everything else was finished. As for the flowers, I planted mine behind the garage, so I never noticed a smell.

One thing I did notice was fruit. After 10 barren years, my fruitless pear tree suddenly became a mother. As it turns out, sterile trees can still produce fruit if there's a cross-pollinator nearby.

The verdict: Although a sterile version of this tree may not drop fruit or produce a bad smell, there's a chance it'll still cross-pollinate. This habit sucks the power out of hardworking native plants, essentially choking them out.

If you've got one, consider cutting it down (it makes good firewood!) and replacing it with a better-behaved, less-problematic flowering tree. Some of my favorites include kousa dogwood, pagoda dogwood, serviceberry, flowering cherry, and fringetree. Not only will your neighbors thank you for sparing them from the stench of a Bradford pear tree, but native plants will be ever so grateful.

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