The Bradford Pear: A garden fad that misfired

Photo courtesy of Scott Harrison.


By Kit Flynn

Driving along Route 54 headed towards Mebane, I was surprised at how many Bradford pears I observed. This was a garden fad that the Triangle enthusiastically embraced over thirty years ago – and I had assumed that most of them had died or been removed by now.

Thirty-two years ago, I moved down to Chapel Hill in March – and was blown away. In the first place, March is a beautiful month here in the Triangle, whereas March up north resembles January, which has cold weather and gray skies. Secondly, University Mall was covered with Bradford pear trees in bloom and I, who had never seen one, thought it was a wondrous sight.

Fortunately, I never planted one. This was one garden fad I managed inadvertently to avoid.

There are lots of pears – over 3000 species. One species, the Callery pear is a quick-growing tree that is considered invasive. This pear species typically has large thorns, ones that have been known to inflict wounds, while bearing inedible fruit. There are many cultivars of Callery pears, of which the Bradford pear is just one. Native to Vietnam, Korea, Japan and China, the Callery pear was never been considered as a desirable addition to the garden until the Bradford pear appeared on the scene.

Appearing in the 1960s, Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford pear’ was adopted quickly by landscapers as it was easy to transport, grew quickly, was thornless, while at the same time, it offered a delightful spectacle of blooms in the early spring. By the 1990s, it was well established throughout the US. Because the Bradford pear was considered sterile since it was unable to self-pollinate, the nursery industry embraced it – after all, who doesn’t appreciate a fruit tree when it is in bloom?

However, there was a serious downside to all the Bradford pears that were planted. While this cultivar couldn’t pollinate with other Bradford pears, it could cross-pollinate with other Callery pear cultivars with devastating results. The resultant fruits were hard little inedible rocks that softened in cold weather, only to be savored by the birds who spread the seeds far and wide. Suddenly, this sterile fruit tree had become invasive. Please note that its fruit contains cyanide laced seeds that are poisonous to dogs.

To further compound the problem, the blossoms, in an effort to attract pollinators, emit a fishy odor most of us find undesirable. When it has the chance to cross-pollinate with another Callery pear, the offspring, classified as Callery pears, develop the large thorns indicative of the species, something we barely tolerate in roses but do not find desirable in trees. These thorns can be four inches long, capable of puncturing tractor tires according to Kelly Oten at NCSU.

The weak branches also presented a problem as they form a tight crotch at the tree trunk, creating a weakness quickly displayed on windy days. When the wind arises, the branches simply cannot cope with the wind force. Consequently, what was once a symmetrical tree quickly becomes a disfigured one, one with many broken branches.

Compound that weakness with the fact that this is a large fruit tree programmed to be a specimen tree; too many homeowners forgot its size when they planted it. Consequently, it is found under street wires, nestled into tight spaces close to the house, or bunched together with other trees. As a result, many have become misshapen with topped haircuts or scrunched into too-small spaces, giving the impression that they can barely breathe.

Today, three states have banned these trees: South Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. South Carolina now offers to replace homeowners’ Bradford pears with native species for free.
Although they are not banned from North Carolina, NCSU is taking a definitive step to reduce, if not eradicate the tree. Following the example set by South Carolina, the Bradford Pear Bounty will gift homeowners with a local tree replacement upon proof that they have cut down their Bradford pear.

There are other white-blossomed fruit trees that bloom in the early spring. To know you are cutting down the right tree and not a cherry tree for example, smell the flowers. Cherry trees lack the offensive, fishy odor. The limbs of the Bradford pear turn upwards at a sharp angle, whereas the cherry tree lacks that acute angle. The leaves as detailed on the Internet, have a different shape. Cherry trees typically are smaller than the Bradford pears.

Reputed to be a short-lived tree, some Bradford pears have fortunately left the scene. However, a drive up to Mebane demonstrates that this tree can live past thirty years. Eventually, however, they will be gone from North Carolina gardens. The tragedy is that their offspring, now found in the wild, will be self-perpetuating for a long time.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at
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