What's Wrong With Bradford Pears?

Bradford pear
Photo: Steve Bender

If there's a pretty white tree in front of your house in spring, chances are it's Bradford pear. And it looks something like the blossoming tree above. What's wrong with that, you say? Here are just a few of the imperfections Grumpy refuses to tolerate.

Yard waste from pruning trees
Steve Bender

1. Bradford pear has a very weak branching structure.

So when a nice 30-foot-tall tree encounters a wind gust of 40 mph, it breaks up into little pieces and ends up as a pile of debris in the street. The reason is that all of its major limbs diverge from a single point on the trunk and the trunk can't take the stress. Bradford carnage may not happen this year or next year, but it will happen. Hope it doesn't fall on your house, car, hot tub, chicken coop, still, grill, or classical sculpture. Because of their structural weakness, many Bradford pears only live 10 to 20 years.

Dead zone under Bradford pear
Steve Bender

2. You can't grow grass under a Bradford pear.

The dense branching produces dense shade, which lawn grass hates. The worst place to plant a Bradford pear in your yard is on a slope, because after the grass dies, the soil washes away, and you're left with ugly gullies that seem to collect all of your empties. They also choke out any other plants that try to grow beneath them.

Invasive Bradford pear
Steve Bender

3. Bradford pear is quickly becoming an invasive exotic pest.

Selected years ago by the U. S. National Arboretum as a thornless, highly ornamental version of the Chinese Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), Bradford was supposed to be seedless and sterile. That's because its flowers can't pollinate themselves. All was hunky-dory, until the Arboretum and others starting releasing selections that didn't bust up in storms or get as huge as Bradford does (up to 50 feet tall and 40 feet wide). Then all of these Callery pears started carousing and cross-pollinating, forming fruit and viable seed.

Bradford pears are considered invasive throughout the Southeast, with some programs even offering free trees to homeowners who cut them down. Today, I guarantee that if you take a close look at the surroundings of any shopping centers planted with Bradfords, you will see thorny Callery pear seedlings coming up like gangbusters. I took the picture above in north Georgia, where Bradford pears have seeded in so thickly, it's like a brier patch.


4. The flowers of Bradford pear smell a whole lot like the scene below.

This is no problem for my cat, but most people don't care for the smell of tuna on a trunk. If you smell something rotten emanating from your tree while it's in flower, you are most certainly growing a Bradford pear.


What Should You Do With a Bradford Pear?

But wait, it gets worse. Some folks in my neighborhood have taken to murdering their Bradfords the same way they murder their crepe myrtles. They get chainsaws and loppers and cut back the branches to stumps in spring, forcing the tree to put out all new growth each year. This is a foolish move, because while a murdered crepe will still bloom this year, a Bradford pear won't.

There is only one good solution for handling this short-lived tree: Cut it down before it causes damage to your property or spreads into the wild. There are other white-flowering trees that can beautify your garden each spring. And there are many more small trees to choose from for accenting your front yard with pretty blossoms or colorful fall foliage.

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