Replacing invasive ‘demon trees’ with something more tame

Bradford pears (Pyrus calleryana) are one of my least-favorite trees, to put it as nicely as possible.

From a distance (and behind closed windows), their display is quite beautiful. Their smooth, dark trunks and branches topped with enormous clouds of white flowers make an impressive sight, especially when there are dozens of them flanking a stretch of a suburban parkway.

These trees became a favorite of landscapers and designers because they are hardy, grow quickly to an impressive height, bloom in the spring, and provide fall color. I also imagine that these landscape designers did not actually live anywhere near these demon trees.

Like so many pretty things, there’s a dark side to these trees. They have become such a problem that some areas have banned the sale of this cultivar and are paying homeowners to remove and replace them.

Native to China, it is well-adapted to a variety of climates. They can thrive in hot summers as well as bitterly cold winters. In the Midwest and Southeast, they have become obnoxiously invasive. They spread by producing suckers, which have nasty thorns that can be 3 inches long. As with all suckering plants, if you cut the main trunk down, the suckers will persist and multiply. Imagine that you are Hercules trying to slay a many-headed hydra in your yard. (Your “honey-do” list has now become the 12 labors.)

Any tree that grows quickly is likely to be prone to breakage, and Bradford pears are no exception. Their natural branch structure is weak, and the wood is exceptionally brittle, making them hazardous in windy conditions. In fact, they don’t even need the wind’s help. One afternoon, on an almost perfectly still day, one of these huge trees, without warning, just broke in half, missing our car by a few feet. Early pruning and shaping could help, but I’ve never seen them trimmed until they’ve reached their full height of 50 feet. By that time, the crown is a tangled mess of overgrown branches and training is impossible.

They are also semi-resistant to fireblight. Many desirable fruit trees are extremely susceptible to this disease and will succumb within a year or two after being infected. Bradford pears can be infected with and spread fireblight, but rarely do they die from it. We have lost many pears, apple, and quince trees due to blight from the Bradford pears planted just outside our wall.

Last, but not least, the flowers have an unpleasant, musty stench that smells like – um – a teenage boy’s room or the back of a city bus. You know what I mean.

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