The Dark Side of the Bradford Pear

Sunday, April 1, 2018 11:20 AM

What are these beautiful trees I am seeing all over town with the white blossoms? TP

You are probably referring to the Bradford Pear. While they are beautiful and quite popular, they have a dark side. But, first lets talk about what they are and how they got here.

 The Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) was first introduced to the United States in the early 1900’s as a way to help control fire blight of the common pear. By the 80s it had become the second most popular tree in America, primarily as an ornamental tree.

The Bradford grows rapidly (12 to 15 feet increase in height over an 8 to 10-year period), to a height of 30 to 50 feet tall and 20-30 feet wide with a short to moderate life span of 15 to 25 years (less if we get an ice storm).

Most people are attracted to the Bradford Pear for its showy white flowers that appear in spring. The flowers are beautiful, but unfortunately have an unpleasant fragrance. Early spring flowering can last two weeks, but late frosts may reduce bloom time.

Sounds like a great tree. Well, that’s what many of us thought until we got to know its dark side.

Although the ‘Bradford’ pear was originally bred to be sterile and thorn-less, they easily cross-pollinate and produce fruit. These fruits are like tiny, hard apples, round, ½ inch in diameter, greenish-yellow flecked with whitish spots, inedible, with 2–4 black seeds. After it freezes in the fall, the fruit softens and become palatable to birds that help spread the tree. Unfortunately, these offspring revert back to the thorny variety of their origin. They are not usually noticed until spring when we see them along the highways. These descendants are also quite invasive and tend to displace native plant communities, disrupting natural succession. All those white-blossomed trees you are seeing outside the fence line of the highway are likely the thorny offspring of the Bradford Pear.

So, what do we do in response to what we now know about the Bradford? In spite of the fact that Bradford pear trees are well adapted for Oklahoma climatic conditions, just say no. There are a variety of other trees that work well in Oklahoma without the Bradford’s invasive side effects. They are also quite weak making them poor choices to deal with Oklahoma winds and ice.

If you have a Bradford pear, you might need to consider replacing it and if you are looking for a spring flowering alternative, you should consider a redbud or dogwood tree. For more information of which types of trees do well in Tulsa, visit the Hot Topics section of our website and download a copy of our info sheet: Trees for Tulsa.

You can get answers to all your gardening questions by calling the Tulsa Master Gardeners Help Line at 918-746-3701, dropping by our Diagnostic Center at 4116 E. 15th Street, or by emailing us at mg@tulsamastergardeners.org.