Ideas that seem really good can turn out to be just the opposite over time; the Bradford pear tree and related cultivars are a solid example of that sad fact.
The Callery pear cultivar Pyrus calleryana “Bradford” — the Bradford pear — seemed like a great plant for homeowners and urban arborists. Self-sterile, fast growing, with abundant white flowers in early spring and great fall color, it was marketed to communities, builders and homeowners as the perfect compact ornamental tree. What could go wrong?
Pretty much everything.
The tree is not as compact as advertised, and its branches are brittle. It breaks in wind, ice and snow. Its flowers have a rank smell described least-offensively as “fishy,” and its fetid pollen triggers allergy attacks — all bothersome but forgivable. But by planting it, we unknowingly unleashed an invasive pest. While not fertile within their specific cultivar, the tree can breed with almost every other variety, even the suckers that its rootstock — it’s grafted — sprout with great regularity. The hard fruits produced offer little nutrition to the birds that eat them but speed through avian guts to be spread across the landscape, sprouting plants that harken back to their invasive Chinese origin — a thorny tree that forms dense thickets where they bloom and leaf out before most natives, conquering farmland, pastures and orchards across the Ozarks.
The Missouri Department of Conservation is seeking to halt the planting of Callery pear cultivars and to stop the spread of the trees in the wild by encouraging homeowners and urban foresters to replace them with native alternatives such as serviceberry, dogwood and redbud.
“Callery pears have been a tree many people have enjoyed for years,” said Ann Koenig, a community forester with the department, in a statement. “However, besides the fact that these trees often break apart in storms, and that they have foul-smelling flowers, it turns out these trees are spreading throughout fields and forests, causing problems in our more natural areas. We are excited to work with our partners to provide great native trees to those who are ready to replace them.”
Property owners have planted or inherited the trees not knowing of their bad behavior. The city of Joplin had planted the tree in sidewalk cutouts, particularly downtown. Those trees should be removed.
“If you have Bradford pears, we encourage people to get rid of them and plant something that would be a Missouri native, like dogwoods,” said Jessie Ballard, a naturalist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
We agree, and we urge the city and particularly the Joplin Parks and Recreation Department to remove and replace the trees it has with appropriate natives. Further, we would like to see the city team up with the Department of Conservation, the Missouri Invasive Plant Task Force and any other appropriate agencies to create a buyback program that exchanges removed Callery pear cultivars for native trees. Such a program has been successful in other communities, including this month in Columbia.
Planting these trees was a mistake. It’s time to fix it.