We need some warm spring weather to rid us of those fetid white blossoms on the ornamental pears (Pyrus calleryana). While the bloom can be spectacular, I dread the musky fishy stench every spring. It’s even worse than that of the American Chestnut in the summer.
We call them ‘Bradford’ pears, although that is just the most common cultivar. Correctly called callery pear, they are a fast growing tree with smooth triangular to nearly round dark green leaves and a symmetrical shape. They usually require little pruning to maintain that but would benefit from some thinning out to lessen their susceptibility to wind damage.
Callery pear is native to China and was introduced for potential use as rootstock for cultivated pears. Scientists planted thousands of seeds and selected one vigorous, non-spiny seedling and named it “Bradford”. The ‘Bradford’ cultivar proved to be an attractive landscape specimen with a symmetrical growth form, showy flowers and shiny foliage.
It was also pest resistant and was nearly resistant to fireblight. Furthermore, the original selection was not self-pollinating, which meant it produced no fruit or seeds. Grafting was easy and soon these pears adorned numerous landscapes, commercial and residential.
Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. Other callery pear cultivars were developed and introduced into the nursery trade. Crosspollination resulted and the rest is history. Seeds spread everywhere and this demon escaped to torment us all. Their progeny have sharp thorns and reproduce at a rate that would make any rabbit or feral cat jealous. The spread of callery pear along roadsides and the edges of fields was first noticed in southern Maryland and around Washington, DC. Now they are considered among the most invasive of all landscape plants nationwide.
I honestly can’t comprehend what would possess someone to plant one, particularly around here in Hurricane Alley. The wood is brittle and trees branch at acute angles and form dense crowns. This contributes to a bad scenario. They split and pieces wind up on the lawn after every significant summer storm. Misshapen trees result and fruits a little larger than garden peas litter the sidewalks. While they aren’t poisonous, these little pomes don’t make acceptable table fare except to birds which disseminate them all over the countryside .
Bradford Pears once adorned the front lawn of Northeastern High School. I remember back in the fall of 2003 I took my horticulture class out for a walk right before Hurricane Isabel. I told the kids that if the storm was anything like it was advertised they would never see those trees standing again. Only one tree is left, probably because that specimen received a little shelter from a big willow oak tree on one side and the school building on the other.
Do these trees have any redeeming features? Well, they are cheap, grow quickly, have nice reddish purple fall color and the birds like the astringent little fruits which taste like unripe persimmons. Other than that the answer is no.
Redbud, serviceberry, dogwood, flowering cherry and crabapple are suitable spring-flowering substitutes, though dogwoods usually struggle in sunny places and we are pushing the southern limit for serviceberry. Crape myrtles bloom later in the year and are adaptable and attractive, though arguably overused. Chinese elms are nice, but don’t offer the showy bloom of the others. Still, nearly anything would be better than Pyrus calleryana regardless of the cultivar.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.