Steve Boehme: Are pear trees an environmental disaster?

Steve Boehme: Are pear trees an environmental disaster?

By Steve Boehme

“Volunteer” ornamental pear trees are invading our woods and fields in large numbers.

The planting of “Bradford” pear trees, along with other ornamental pears, is being actively discouraged by conservationists.

Bradford pear is the most popular variety of Callery pear, a family of ornamental pear trees with fruit so small it is usually eaten by birds before it drops.

Ornamental pears display beautiful white blossoms in spring, grow rapidly in almost any soil into a tidy shape, and have dark green shiny leaves that turn gorgeous red in late fall. Millions of ornamental pears have been planted over the past 50 years.

Ornamental pear trees can only be produced by grafting cuttings from patented hybrid trees onto the rootstocks of non-hybrid, native Callery pear seedlings. This means that seedlings sprouting from dropped fruit are not desirable ornamentals at all, but native Callery pears which are multiple-trunk clump trees with vicious thorns, shaped more like huge shrubs. They make dense thickets, smother other trees and are hard to control.

The popularity of Bradford pears over many years has led to the rapid spread of Callery pears from seed. Today, Callery pears are considered an invasive species and planting them is discouraged by the government.

One much-advertised advantage of hybrid Bradford pear trees was that they were sterile. This meant that their blooms could not develop into fruit, so they would not self-seed. Bradford is not the best ornamental pear, having structural flaws which cause it to split in half in later life. Bradford pears are very susceptible to ice and wind damage.

Eventually, better varieties like Cleveland Select have become more popular because they have alternating branching, better limb attachment and a narrower form to reduce ice and wind damage.

An unintended consequence is that the newer pear varieties pollinate Bradford, so gradually the millions of Bradford pear trees, along with their newer replacements, have become very fruitful. This meant that birds started spreading Callery pear seeds everywhere, and native Callery pears have now become one of the worst invasive plants in many parts of the country. In spring, you can see from their blooms just how aggressively they have taken over in some areas.

How should we handle this? We’re not advocating the destruction of all ornamental pears in the interest of environmental protection.

Let’s start by finding alternatives when looking at trees for your own landscape. You need to be watchful that your landscape isn’t taken over by seedling Callery pears that “volunteer” where they’re not wanted. Simply pull them out while they’re small.

Do you have split or broken Bradford pear trees in your yard? It would be helpful to get rid of them sooner rather than later.

The next step would be to watch for volunteer Callery pears in woodlots and fields, and get rid of them before they reproduce. At the very least we should try not to make the problem any worse.

Steve Boehme and his wife, Marjorie, own GoodSeed Farm Landscapes, a design-build landscape/hardscape installer specializing in outdoor living spaces. Visit or call 937-587-7021.

Salt Magazine

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