The nursery industry trade has its share of fads, like the fashion and food industries. The nursery industry plant fad’s unique aspect is that it takes its plant fads longer to get started, and they last longer. Once a specific plant becomes popular with the gardening public, everyone wants to plant one. As a result, they become overplanted in-home lots, landscapes, and street corners. Then 25 years later, we find that the shrub or tree has serious problems.
An excellent example of this happening is the Callery Pear, a.k.a. “Bradford” pear. The species is native to China, Taiwan, Japan, and Vietnam. It is named after the Italian French Chinese studies academic Joseph-Marie Callery (1810–1862), who originally sent specimens of the tree to Europe. Callery pear was imported multiple times to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th Century, including the first introduction in 1909 to the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts.
Frank N. Meyer, plant explorer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was instrumental in the first introduction of Pyrus calleryana in 1919 to the USDA at their Plant Introduction Station at Glenn Dale (Prince George’s County), Maryland. In his 1916-1918 plant exploration trip in China, Dr. Meyer was looking for wild pear trees because they were found to be the only varieties capable of withstanding fire blight, a significant pear, and apple disease. At that time, fire blight was devastating the commercial pear industry. As a result, Pyrus calleryana was researched and grafted as a fire blight resistant rootstock for the common pear long before it gained interest as an ornamental.
Fast forward to the 1950s. Plant breeders at the USDA Glenn Dale Plant Station recognized the ornamental value and hardiness of the Callery pear. They developed several cultivars, including ‘Bradford,’ which was named and introduced in 1963. The ‘Bradford’ cultivar was raised from seed obtained in 1919 from Nanjing, China. Because of its relatively fast growth, beautiful white blossoms, nice shape, drought, and various soils tolerance and toughness in the landscape, general insect and disease tolerance, and nice fall color, the “Bradford” pear and other Callery pear cultivars became immensely popular in the nursery trade and with the gardening public. Lady Bird Johnson promoted the tree in 1966 by planting one in downtown Washington, D.C.
In the landscape, the Bradford pear grows 30 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide and has a relatively short to moderate life span of 15 to 25 years for a landscape tree. The tree produces small, round, marble sized brown fruit. Birds and small mammals often eat the fruits.
Years after its introduction, homeowners and the nursery industry noticed significant problems as the Bradford Pear matured in the landscape. A significant issue emerged over its structural weakness. The tree has a bad growth habit of producing a full crown with tight, sharp-angled weak branch crotches. Because of this, the tree may literally fall apart and split in the middle. This characteristic makes the tree very susceptible to storm damage. The tree is genetically programmed to grow this way, and there is not too much you can do about it other than selectively prune out branches to open the crown.
In Maryland, where I am from, this damage occurs from windstorms, heavy snow, and ice storms. Here in Georgia, the main problem is wind damage. Plus, plant pruning butchery and “topping” by uninformed homeowners and landscapers. I have seen some terrible examples of this in Cherokee County landscapes.
The other major problem with Pyrus Calleryana, including “Bradford,” is its invasiveness in the landscape. Without going into a detailed genetics explanation, they basically went “rogue.” The ‘Bradford’ pear had been initially bred as sterile and thornless. However, they readily cross-pollinate with other cultivars of Callery pears, and, as a result, they produce viable fruit. Birds and small mammals then eat the fruit, and then spread the seed.
The seedlings of Bradford pear, once they have established in the landscape, old fields, roadsides, or forested areas, create dense thickets of thorny trees that crowd out other plants, including native species that cannot compete for water, soil, and space. A single tree can spread rapidly by seed and vegetative means, forming a sizeable patch within several years. In forested settings, it leafs out earlier than our native trees, effectively shading out spring wildflowers.
There are better native tree alternatives to use if you want spring color. Consider planting American plum (Prunus americana), Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), or Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) instead.
Don’t forget to register for the free Cherokee County Master Gardener virtual seminar “Success with Summer Veggies” Friday, March 25 from noon to 1:30 p.m. To sign up, visit https://ugeorgia.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV 9NOr2GKycbwiqHj.