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Please Don't Plant 'Ornamental' Pear Trees!

Q. Gail in Clarence Center New York writes: "Here are some photos of my Cleveland Pear trees. As you can see, we have a row of them lining our driveway. We planted them around 15 years ago. The lawn is not treated, and the driveway is not salted in the winter. They have compost at their base, but it isn't mounded. All the other ones seem to be doing fine, but one is in trouble. I noticed last year that it seemed a little sparse, but no dead leaves. This year it was worse and now the leaves are brown. I tried to get someone to come out and look at it, but local companies are apparently too busy for one tree. We will cut it down soon. Do you have any idea what could have killed it? I am concerned about the others."

A. "Cleveland Pear", like the notorious Bradford Pear, is one of several varieties of {quote} 'ornamental' pear trees, often called Caliper pears, or more properly, Callery pears, named after Marie Callery who sent the first specimens from China to Europe.

I say {quote} 'ornamental' because while they may be nice to look at in the Spring when they are covered with showy white flowers, they are brittle trees whose branches regularly come crashing down to the ground, their flowers are fragrant with the smell of rotting meat, tainted fish and/or dog poop on your shoes (because their flowers are pollinated by flies, not bees). And despite being bred to be non-fruiting, they have become seriously invasive.

Apparently 'non fruiting' simply means the trees do not produce juicy eating pears, but all that filthy fly pollination does lead to the development of small but numerous 'fruits', which again I have to put quote marks around because these hard, half-inch things contain seeds that are rich in naturally occurring cyanide. How charming.

Ah, but as the weather cools towards frost, those little hardballs become soft and attract birds, who eat the flesh and poop out the seeds at one of their next rest stops. The seeds germinate rapidly in the Spring and neglected areas of field and forest quickly become Callery Pear nurseries, forming an almost impenetrable mass of the nasty things, displacing wanted plants, native plants, and everything else.

But wait! These trees were bred to produce flowers that couldn't be self-pollinated OR cross pollinated. Ah, but there are lots of trees, lots of flowers, lots of flies and lots of new varieties being continually introduced into the market; and eventually, as Jurassic Park's Jeff Goldblum would have predicted, "Nature finds a way" and now there are miserable monocultures of these Triffids contaminating large spaces from the South through the Mid-Atlantic and all the way up to Madison, Wisconsin.

Thus, my headline: Please don't plant any more of these vegetative villains!

Now, back to Gail's dead tree. I first want to congratulate her on having a chemical-free lawn and avoiding road salt in the winter, but those 'non-mounds' of compost around the base of her trees are indeed mounds big enough to be capable of creating the dreaded 'volcano' effect, rotting the bottom of the trunk where the mulch keeps it moist. The solution is simple: Use a rake to spread those mounds out until they reach the margins of the root systems and are no longer touching the trunk. If the trunk of the dead tree has been completely rotted or nibbled away where it was previously covered, that's why that one died.

(And it's always a tree in the middle of the line, isn't it? Never one on either end that you could remove without suspicion.)

These trees were bred to be disease resistant, but like their supposed sterility, those dreams did not come true either. Although their biggest enemies are the high winds, heavy wet snow and ice that break their fragile branches, they are susceptible to diseases such as Fire Blight, a nasty bacteria that affects eating pears as well. The symptoms appear to match up with Gail's dead tree and there is no real cure once a tree is that far gone. Interestingly, the filthy flies that pollinate the flowers in Spring transmit the disease.

Bottom line: Get it out of there before the roots spread it to your other trees. And yes, that means having the stump pulled. Like all fruit trees, the wood emits a marvelous fragrance when burned, which you should do.

And you should probably make plans for the others. Fast-growing trees have the shortest lives and ornamental pears generally only live for about 25 years.

But don't feel bad about growing a villainous Zombie Tree. When first introduced in the swinging sixties (when many other flowering mistakes were made), it was hailed as the perfect flowering tree (and for nursery owners, the least expensive tree to produce and the fastest to grow).

The legendary wildflower lover (and wife of President Lyndon ("wanna see my scar?") Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson had a Bradford Pear (the earliest variety of these trees) planted in downtown Washington, D.C. in the early sixties; and The New York Times praised the Bradford, saying, "Few trees possess every desired attribute, but the Bradford ornamental pear comes unusually close to the ideal."

Fake news!

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