Gardenwise: I Can’t Quit My ‘Bad Boy’
by Susan Tito
I always rejoice when the deciduous trees burst into bloom every spring. They’re long-awaited eye candy!
I love all flowering trees but I am feeling conflicted about one on my property, a Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’).
Once part of a twosome that provided the perfect amount of shade over my back deck, my lone Bradford is on life support. At one time, I would do anything to save it.
Now I’m not so sure what to do.You see, Bradford pear trees are pariahs of the plant kingdom.
I inherited my “monster” when I bought my house 25 years ago. Along with its now-departed twin (more on that later), my pair of pears reached majestically toward the sky, filling my second-story window with a snowy-white cloud of resplendent bloom.
Through the years, they put on a magnificent show. I watched many species of birds build nests in their tightly arranged limbs, and I delighted when fat, buzzing bumblebees bobbed among the five-petaled blossoms, seemingly intoxicated by the early season pollen source.
I wasn’t alone in my love for this tree. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture selected the Bradford pear for public release in the 1960s, people revered it for its neat, globe-like crown; rapid growth; pristine flowers and good fall color. Bradford pear fever descended upon the nation. Even Lady Bird Johnson fell under the spell of the tree, planting one in Washington, D.C. in 1966.
“The Bradford pears were a staple of every landscaper and developer for almost 50 years,” said arborist Evan Dackow, board member of the Long Island Arboricultural Association and vice president of Jolly Green Tree and Shrub Care. “They numbered in the tens of thousands, if not several hundred thousand, at the height of their popularity.”
Time would reveal that the Bradford pear has serious flaws that make it undesirable. For starters, it isn’t particularly long-lived. It averages about 20 to 25 years — a blink of an eye compared with other flowering species, such as redbuds and dogwoods, which can live to 50 years and beyond with care.
Its form, praised decades earlier, became a liability. Its extreme upright branching habit and narrow crotch angles cause the tree to split apart in storms.
“I have a client who owns an industrial park that was developed in the mid ’70s with at least three Bradford pears on each lawn. I would send a crew to clean up the day after a wind storm without having surveyed the area because we knew the damage was going to be there,” said Mr. Dackow.
I learned about the Bradford’s weaknesses firsthand a few years after moving in to my house. A particularly ruthless summer storm exacted its fury and several heavy branches sheared off both trees. I hired a company to remove the fallen limbs and trim up the trees. They were saved but lost most of their good-looking structure.
A few years, several storms and multiple prunings later, the trees had become grossly misshapen. Still, they put forth their beautiful bloom every spring — until 2012, when Superstorm Sandy swept into town.
The hurricane-force gusts relentlessly whipped both trees, ripping one out of the ground. It fell hard like a mortally wounded warrior, pulling down a power line as it made its fatal descent.
Its loss had only deepened my resolve to nurture my surviving Bradford.
Last year, my tree experienced an uncharacteristic leaf fall in early summer, only a few weeks after it began to leaf out. The fallen leaves had dark brown and yellow splotches on them. That’s when I learned about another problem afflicting these trees — pear trellis rust, a fungal disease.
“The fungus has spread like wildfire over the past five years throughout what seems like the entirety of the population of Long Island,” said Mr. Dackow, who explained that once a plant becomes an industry favorite, it becomes overplanted. If a pest or disease afflicts a specific species, the problem could spread quickly, decimating a plant population.
I consulted with two arborists — the first said I had pear trellis rust and recommended the immediate removal of the tree. He then proceeded to talk trash about Bradford pear trees in general.
The other arborist diagnosed the tree with fire blight, a serious bacterial infection. He recommended a severe pruning and root treatment the following spring.
I’m at a crossroads. My head tells me I should remove the tree, but my heart says to hold off. I know that my Bradford pear is on borrowed time, but I have come to realize that I have a soft spot for bad boys — at least of the botanical variety.
Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Writers Association. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.