You gotta be a 5th grader to totally appreciate my Michigander mother’s poem she trotted out the first day of each spring in her best imitation of a Bronx accent. Yes, spring has arrived. My peach, apricot and pear trees are merrily bursting into pink and white blooms. The bluish spikes of grape hyacinths hover near the ground. Do they not know our last killing frost may still be weeks away?

Die Boids (birds) are singin’ in da trees,

Da Sky is lousy wit stars,

Die Oeyth (Earth) stinks of poyfume (perfume),

Spwring has Spwrung.

You gotta be a 5th grader to totally appreciate my Michigander mother’s poem she trotted out the first day of each spring in her best imitation of a Bronx accent. Yes, spring has arrived. My peach, apricot and pear trees are merrily bursting into pink and white blooms. The bluish spikes of grape hyacinths hover near the ground. Do they not know our last killing frost may still be weeks away?

St. Patrick’s Day weekend found me traveling to southeast Oklahoma. The weather was beautiful and trees along Interstate 40 had exploded in white blossoms from Shawnee to Sallisaw. Whitefield Exit was the epicenter for a flowering forest. I walked from the Fiesta Mart past the gas pumps, alongside the parking lot of an out-of-business store and down a single lane dirt road. On both sides the trees seemed enveloped in snow. Too early for dogwoods, I suspected some type of wild plum orgy. I looked closer. Oh No. Every tree was a Bradford pear.

Bradford pear trees were heavily touted to become the next best street and landscape tree in America. Luscious thick green foliage, typical pear-shaped branching that forms a round ball or pyramidal shape, amazing displays of white flowers in early spring and brilliant red fall foliage. What more could one want?

In the early 1900s, over 86% of pear crops in the western US were being destroyed by Fire Blight. The native bacteria (Erwinia amylovora), spread by pollinators, released a decimating toxin that flowed from blossoms through stems and trunks into the roots. Many species in the rose family were susceptible, especially the cultivated European pear (Pyrus communis). Frank Reimer at the Southern Oregon Research Station was frantically searching for a resistant variety. He discovered the Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) was strongly resistant but this ornamental pear grew in China, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan. USDA plant explorer Frank Meyer was sent to collect 100 pounds of Callery pear seeds in 1918 and sent batches seeds to the US for propagation and study. In 1919, Reimer himself traveled to east central China and collected seeds from two different provinces.

Acres of land were put into Callery pear production in Oregon as well as Glenn Dale, Maryland, the USDA Plant Introduction Station. Not only was Callery pear resistant to Fire Blight, the robust pear tolerated a variety of environmental conditions. Even today the European pear may be grafted onto rootstock of the Callery pear, giving it better resistance and hardiness.

In 1952, thornless Callery pears were discovered by the Glenn Dale research team which included horticulturalist F. C. Bradford. A treeless neighborhood was selected near the Maryland station to study the tree’s performance. After 8 years of growth, the “Bradfords” were deemed an ornamental success. Commercial production began in 1962. In 1969, Aristocrat was sold in Kentucky. This tree had a pyramidal form. The Chanticleer was cloned in Cleveland, Ohio and proved so hardy and street smart it spawned other genetically identical cultivar clones such as Cleveland Select, Stone Hill and Glenn’s Form.

Other landscape cultivars were released from the MD station. Both the open-pollinated thornless Whitehouse (1977) and the narrower Capital (1981) flowered more abundantly than other Callery pears. Plant nurseries came on board. Autumn Blaze, a smaller variety with striking autumn color and round canopy, was developed at a Horticultural Farm in Oregon and patented in 1978.

The magic began to wear thin. Bradford pears began cropping up in unintended places. As you see in Oklahoma, the Bradford pear will leaf out earlier than native trees. The flowers appear in groups of 6 to 12. The strong odor reminds one of rotting fish, which apparently smells heavenly to honey bees, hoverflies and bumblebees. The fruit, which is not supposed to be, ripens in late autumn and attracts robins, European Starlings and Cedar Wax Wings.

Wood boring beetles are repelled by chemicals within the Bradford pear, but not white-tailed deer. Some Bradfords have reverted back to their native thorny branches, discouraging other herbivores. Can these trees think? They can live on mountains, parking lots and streets while putting up with drought and heat. What they don’t like is excessive cold and shade, so are not common in the northern US nor growing under other trees.

In the eastern and southern parts of the US we see Bradford pears everywhere. By 1964 the tree had escaped cultivation and gone rogue in Arkansas. Their proliferation has been bird-assisted along fences, in fields, by houses, and adjacent to roads. Now found in the wild in over 26 states, this tree is definitely making an environmental impact. Because of its fast growth, it outcompetes with other native trees and forms thickets. The branch attachments are weak and the tree shreds and sheds in storms, ice and snow. The tree only lives about 25 years, but that is 25 years too long. A group of Bradford pears in bloom is, well, nauseating if you’re standing down wind. The soft, gushy fruit is something else when it lands on walkways, such as by a store or office. Bradford pears are promiscuous and prolific.

“The curse of the Bradford pear” is an annual bashing of the despicable tree by writer/gardener Durant Ashmore, Greenville News, SC. He states just one tree can spawn thousands of evil progeny.

Steve Bender, The Grumpy Gardener in Southern Living magazine, offered a set of high-quality Corona bypass loppers to three lucky readers who sent in pictures of horrible crepe myrtle murders. Folks in his area regularly butcher their crepe myrtles, much to his chagrin. The loppers were to be used on Bradford pears, not crepe myrtles!

Wild Bradford pear forests surfaced in Oklahoma over a dozen years ago. Oklahoma Forester Mark Bays said little birds eat the little pears, do what birds do and planted pears across the state. In 2017 Oklahoma City parks discovered 542 volunteer Bradford pears.

This January the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service published fact sheet L-469 “The Invasive Callery Pear” with color photos! They recommend ZERO tolerance.

So, what to do. Cut down the Bradford with a chainsaw for firewood. Bradford pear wood is dense and heavy. It burns hot and makes a good coal bed. If concerned about toxic chemicals, as am I, repeatedly apply homemade brush killer to stump and suckers. Allow suckers to first reach 12 inches. Keep cutting and killing using vinegar or vinegar solutions with dish detergent to end the little suckers.

Plant native alternatives. Eastern Redbud, Fringe tree, Flowering Dogwood, American Smoke tree, American or Eastern Hop Hornbeam, American or Mexican Plum, Chokecherry, Carolina Buckthorn, Sassafras, or Blackhaw Viburnum are trees that not only look good in the landscape but do good for the wildlife.

As Durant Ashmore says: “Save the world. Eliminate Bradford pears. Enjoy your coffee.”

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.