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A disaster waiting to happen

Jessica Walliser
| Saturday, April 28, 2012, 6:04 p.m.

Q: We planted a 10-foot-tall Cleveland pear tree, and when I look at it I keep hearing my dad's voice telling us to choose a leader for the tree and prune away the rest. (We have a glorious Bradford pear in our backyard that we have been told is a disaster waiting to happen!). The Cleveland pear is so tight and seems to have about three main leaders going up from about halfway up the trunk. Does this tree open up a bit as it grows? If these three main branches get any thicker in diameter, they are going to bump into each other. Do you have any advice? I really hope you are not going to tell me we bought a bad tree but if you feel strongly that we made a bad choice, I guess I want to know that before the tree grows any bigger and costs a bundle to remove.

A: Both Bradford and Cleveland Select are ornamental cultivars of Pyrus calleryana, a species of pear commonly called the Callery pear. They are not native to North America but have become very popular landscape plants for their reliable white blooms and their resistance to fungal diseases. Like many pears, the white flowers have a distinctive "fishy" smell but the fruits of these varieties are small and nondescript, far from the edible pears we all recognize. I think the tree also has become popular for its natural conical growth habit that does not require regular pruning, as well as its beautiful fall color and smallish stature (30 feet). Callery pears also are fairly quick growing.

The Bradford pear, once voted by the National Landscape Association as the second most popular tree in America, is in fact a disaster waiting to happen. These trees are notorious for their weak forks -- the site where each branch meets the trunk. In high wind conditions or when covered in heavy snow, these forks are highly prone to splitting and breaking off, causing death of the tree and sometimes resulting in property damage. Callery pears also are listed on the invasive plant list for several states (including Pennsylvania) and are poised to be added to the lists of many others. Wild populations of them are found in at least 26 different states. Though Bradford was originally bred to be sterile and not produce viable seeds, it readily cross-pollinates with other Callery pears and produces viable seeds that are easily dispersed by birds.

Cleveland Select (also known as Chanticleer) grows more upright and is naturally tighter in structure than Bradford. It is said to be stronger and less prone to splitting. I wouldn't trust it though, especially if it is growing near your house or garage. Not to mention that it is going to cross-pollinate with the Bradford in your backyard and could certainly help lead to the increase of yet another invasive species in Pennsylvania's woodlands (something the multi-flora rose, garlic mustard, Japanese honeysuckle, purple loosestrife and many others seem to be doing a fine job of already). The choice to remove it or not is up to you, but I will tell you that several native trees are excellent replacements, including serviceberry, American fringetree, redbud and dogwood.

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