I Planted a Bradford Pear Tree. Here's Why I Won't Do It Again
'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 places—but 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 an alternate instead, because I believe every plant deserves a chance. Plus, how beautiful are those white flowers? Here's what I learned."
'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' grew fast, took any kind of soil without complaint, and was pest- and disease-free. It was even described as one of the best cultivar of trees developed in the 20th century.
At first, the shortcomings could be written off. 'Bradford' 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' was 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' was crossing with other 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.
My Experience With 'Bradford'
One solution to 'Bradford' issues 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 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 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', but native plants will be ever so grateful.