And a disaster of a pear tree

Lovely when young, Bradfords age into an urban danger

April 25, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN REPORTER

The Bradford pear tree held such promise: It took root in the worst soil, grew quickly and needed little maintenance. It produced beautiful white flowers in the spring, stunning orange and red leaves in the fall, and an appealing lollipop shape that dignified the most humble of streets year-round.

Too bad it didn't last.

The tree proved to be brittle and unstable; it could come down in a heavy wind or ice storm. Often, the trunks could not support the weight of the branches, and they would snap off, crushing cars and sometimes people. And those lovely flowers - it turns out they smelled awful.

Now, as the Bradfords planted in the 1960s and '70s reach their life expectancy, cities are removing them before they cause more trouble. In Baltimore, the city will remove 165 trees - many of them Bradfords - along Charles Street.

In Boston, "You look at Beacon Hill and Charlestown, and a lot of those neighborhoods have real tight streets, and it's pretty much all Bradford pears," said Boston city arborist Leif Fixen.

"For two weeks, everybody gets hooked on them because of the beautiful flowers, but the second they reach maturity, they just fall apart."

The Bradfords are being replaced largely by trees that don't have ornamental blooms, so in coming years the urban vista will be changing: fewer white flowers and perfectly shaped trees, more green leaves and asymmetrical growth. Baltimore is swapping the Bradfords for American elms, red maples and Japanese zelkovas.

The Bradford - developed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Introduction Station in Glenn Dale, Md. - was introduced to the public in 1963. By the time the problems with the tree were apparent, thousands of them had been planted along city streets and in subdivisions and yards across the country.

"Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if at some point down the line somebody doesn't put a ban on planting these trees," said Rob DeSeo, chief horticulturist for the National Park Service, who is not a fan.

Baltimore is waging its own small-scale assault. As sidewalk and street improvement work transforms Charles Street, the Bradfords between Madison Street and North Avenue are being replaced. The $11 million streetscape project will be completed by March - so just when the Bradfords would be in bloom, they'll be gone.

there is no systematic campaign to rid the city of Bradford pear trees, recent streetscape projects on Harford Road and Fulton Avenue have also removed them. Eventually, the ones along Charles Street in Charles Village will come out. Bradfords still loom over much of St. Paul Street, North Avenue and 33rd Street.

The city's forestry department, which hasn't planted a Bradford pear in years, is encouraging residents and developers to plant other types of trees. Tomorrow, starting at 9 a.m., the city will give out 1,000 free redbuds and river birch trees at Druid Hill Park as part of Baltimore Green Week.

For a long time, the Bradford pear and its cousins were much in favor in Baltimore. William Donald Schaefer, who was mayor from 1972 to 1987, loved the flowering trees so much that in 1974 he issued a proclamation declaring the chanticleer pear - a cousin of the Bradford - to be the official city tree.

The proclamation, which still hangs in city arborist Rebecca Feldberg's office, pays homage to the pear's "beautiful blooms in springtime" and "striking red leaves in autumn." Schaefer said in the proclamation, "I urge all citizens and concerned city agencies to consider the particular beauties of this official tree in making plantings throughout the city."

The chanticleer is more stable than the Bradford but does have problems. Still, Feldberg was quick to defend the former mayor. "Now you know, he was duped just as much as anyone else," she said.

Indeed, everyone loved the tree. And for good reason. Besides being fast-growing (it could reach maturity in 15 years) the Bradford pear is tough. It's drought-tolerant and rain-tolerant. It grew to a beautiful round shape without pruning. And it took root anywhere.

"You don't even have to plant it," said DeSeo. "Just throw it off your truck and walk away. It will grow."

"In the last 50 years, this was the solution to suburban landscape challenges because it grew in compacted soils," said John Peter Thompson, chairman of Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville. "It flowered in the spring and got everybody excited. It grew fast. You could run into it with a lawn mower. You could abuse it with lawn chemicals. It didn't die."

The Bradford pear proved remarkably adept at replicating itself, so much so that it is now considered an invasive, exotic species. Exotic because it is not native to Maryland (though it was developed by the USDA, the tree's forebears are from China and Korea). And invasive because in many parts of the state, it has crowded out other trees and plants and taken over.

The small fruits produced by the Bradford are eaten by birds, and possibly deer, and then deposited practically anywhere, but particularly along roadsides, in parks and along the edges of woods. Thompson said hundreds of Bradfords have sprung forth along Route 193 in Prince George's County.

When the U.S. 50 and U.S. 301 interchange in Bowie was rebuilt about five years ago, the grassy areas were planted with native trees and plants. Now they're almost entirely gone. "Eighty percent of it is Bradford pear," said DeSeo.

He said no Bradford pears are planted on federal parkland, "and if they are, I'll cut them down." In addition to removal costs, he said, Bradfords can lead to lawsuits for cities if they fall on people or cars.

"There is a tremendous liability when trees fail, particularly on public lands," DeSeo said. "And the one thing you know about the Bradford pear - it's gonna fail."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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