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How to Grow a Bradford Pear Tree from a Cutting

How to Grow a Bradford Pear Tree from a Cutting

Bradford pears are an extremely popular landscape tree. In fact, some would say they are a little too popular. Bradford pears are becoming invasive in parts of the United States (source).

However, these prolific pears are also a popular rootstock option for grafting edible pears, so propagating them can be useful in some cases.

Take a Bradford pear cutting in early spring as the buds begin to swell. Choose cuttings from 1-year-old branches that are still green and pliable. Cut twigs down to 6” and place them in moist growing media for 4-8 weeks until they have rooted.

Before you start propagating these controversial trees, it’s important to understand where they came from and how to manage them responsibly in a landscape or as a rootstock.

What is a Bradford Pear?

Bradford pears have joined the ranks of kudzu, bamboo, honeysuckle, and many other species as an aggressive, invasive plant that chokes out native specimens.

In 1919, commercial pear growers were facing a devastating infection of fire blight. In an attempt to create more resistant orchards, growers brought in seeds from wild Callery Pears in China. These trees had been observed thriving in harsh environments, and commercial growers wanted to use them as rootstock to improve the overall health of new orchards.

The trees showed promise as a rootstock, but over time, growers began to notice the ornamental qualities of a few specimens. One, in particular, was lacking thorns, had a beautiful, open structure, and fiery red fall color. This, in addition to the showy spring blooms and stronger branches, is what led to the Bradford Pear being released to the public in the 1960s.

All Bradford Pears were genetic clones of one specimen, and because Callery Pears are self-infertile, all Bradford Pears were infertile. This was a bonus for landscapers because the tree would flower, but it wouldn’t fruit. This reduced plant litter and kept the tree from naturalizing.

However, growers soon decided to produce stronger varieties from different Callery Pears. With the introduction of new varieties, it became possible for ornamental pears to cross-pollinate, and thus bear fruit.

As the different varieties of Callery Pear began to produce fruit, they became a favorite food of starlings. Unfortunately, the vigorous, resilient growth habit that made them ideal for commercial pear production almost guaranteed their status as an invasive weed when birds began dropping seeds in the wild.

Now, Callery Pears have hybridized and naturalized, and are considered an invasive species in 29 states (source). However, you can still find Callery Pears in many landscape centers across the U.S.

So, why would anyone choose to propagate a Bradford Pear?

Well, in half the country, you can’t. Check local agricultural laws before you attempt to grow any variety of Callery Pear.

However, growers still propagate Bradford Pears for two reasons:

  • As a landscape plant
  • As rootstock

We don’t recommend adding to the invasive population of these ornamentals gone wild. 

But, if you do decide to take cuttings and create a clone army, we’ve got you covered.

How to Take a Cutting of a Bradford Pear

Technically, a Bradford Pear is a genetic clone of one tree from 100+ years ago. However, the term now loosely refers to official and hybridized varieties of the Callery Pear. 

But, taking a cutting from any one tree will create a clone of that specific tree. This is important because the tree you take a cutting from should be an exquisite specimen in some regard. 

Take a cutting from a tree that shows an impressive resistance to pests or pathogens. Or, take a cutting from a tree (or perhaps just a branch or sucker) that shows a unique bloom color or leaf variegation. Wild and domesticated ornamental pears are everywhere, so make sure you are propagating a specific tree for a specific reason.

Take cuttings in early spring as the buds begin to swell. 

Obviously, you want to identify the tree you want to propagate the season prior, so you can examine the leaves, blooms, and other desirable characteristics while the tree is actively growing.

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You should also take cuttings first thing in the morning. Trees are turgid, or full of water, early in the morning. Throughout the day, plants lose water as they perform photosynthesis, and this results in cuttings that may not root as easily.

Step 1: Tools

The most important step in taking successful cuttings is using clean, sharp cutting instruments. Isopropyl alcohol (at least 70%) in a spray bottle or small container will quickly disinfect tools to prevent cross-contamination.

Dull or rusty pruners or scalpels will create jagged cuts, which have a much lower success rate and may create rot and mold problems for the entire propagation tray.

Gather the following tools before you take your cuttings:

  • A pair of sharp bypass pruners
  • Scalpel or razor blade
  • Bucket with water or wet rags/towel
  • 4”-6” deep container filled with moist growing media (perlite, vermiculite, peat moss, etc.)
  • Spray bottle
  • Rooting hormone (0.2% IBA talc)
  • Grow light (optional only in greenhouse settings)
  • Heating mat (optional but greatly improves success rate)
  • Humidity dome with ventilation (you can make your own with clear plastic material)

Set up your propagation station before you take cuttings. The success rate is highly dependent on the length of time between taking the cutting and putting it in the growing media.

Fill your containers with moist growing media and prepare your rooting hormone (dump some into a separate container to prevent cross-contamination with future propagation projects). You may also set the pre-filled trays on heating mats to get them warmed up (set mats to 75°).

Step 2: Take the Cuttings

Take your cutting tools, a bucket of water, and towels to the tree (or trees) where you will be taking cuttings.

If you identified a specific branch or sucker with a unique characteristic, you must take a cutting of that plant material to replicate it. Otherwise, choose healthy, pencil-thin, green, flexible branches with slightly swollen buds that are at least 6” long.

When you’ve identified appropriate plant material, follow these steps:

  1. Follow the twig back to where the diameter exceeds ¼”
  2. Make a 45° angled cut just above a leaf or leaf bud
  3. Immediately place the twig cut-side down into a bucket of water or wrap in a wet rag
  4. Continue to take cuttings until you have enough plant material

Long, thin branches can be separated into multiple cuttings. Cut the twig back to where it starts to get larger than a pencil in diameter and place it in the bucket. Then, cut it into smaller pieces at the propagation station.

Step 3: Prepare the Cuttings

Take the cuttings back to your propagation station. If you have to store cuttings for any reason, leave them in the bucket or wrap them in a wet towel and place them in the refrigerator until you are ready to put them into the growing media. However, this will result in a lower success rate.

Prepare the cuttings as follows:

  1. If you haven’t already, place containers or trays on heating mats set to 75° (optional)
  2. Remove one twig at a time and place it on a hard, clean cutting surface
  3. Start with the terminal bud of the twig (the outermost, skinniest portion)
  4. Measure back approximately 6” and make a 45° angled cut ⅛” below a bud
  5. Gently remove the outer bark layer from the bottom 1/3rd of the cutting
  6. Place the cutting in water while you prepare the rest of your twigs
  7. For twigs longer than 6”, take off the top 6” and then keep dividing into cuttings as follows:
    1. Make a 45° angled cut ⅛” above the top bud
    2. Measure back approximately 6” and make a 45° angled cut ⅛” below a bud
    3. Gently remove the outer bark layer from the bottom 1/3rd of the cutting
    4. Place the cutting in water while you prepare the rest of your twigs
    5. Important: Remember which end is the bottom- roots will only grow out of the bottom of the twig
  8. After all the cuttings have been prepared, dip the bottom 1/3rd of each cutting in rooting hormone 
  9. Place the cutting 3” deep in the moistened growing media
  10. Space cuttings approximately 3” apart
  11. Lightly mist the cuttings and then cover with a humidity dome

While humidity domes and heating mats are optional, they greatly increase the success rate for your cuttings. Pears have a successful rooting rate of 30%-90% depending on the tools and procedures. Without humidity domes and heating mats, expect your success rate to be closer to 30%.

How to Take Care of Bradford Pear Cuttings

Place cuttings in a well-lit area, but not in direct sunlight. Window sills are not sufficient for tree cuttings. If you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse, place the cuttings in an area where they will get plenty of morning sun, or use a light shade cloth to keep them protected from direct sun.

If you don’t have a greenhouse, use a grow light. LED and fluorescent grow lights produce very little heat, so you can place your cuttings directly underneath them. 

Use a timer to ensure your cuttings have a period of darkness each night; this is just as important as getting lots of light throughout the day. Avoid putting your cuttings in a location where they will be exposed to nighttime light pollution.

Daily care of your cuttings should look like this:

  • Remove the humidity dome in the morning 
  • Leave the humidity dome off the cuttings for ~20 minutes to let air circulate
  • Lightly mist the cuttings and replace the humidity dome
  • Remove the humidity dome at least once more before mid-afternoon to let air circulate, then mist and replace 
  • It is better for cuttings to be too dry than too wet at night- this will help prevent rot/mold 

Remove any cuttings that show signs of mold or rot. Slimy stems, browning, or white, fuzzy growth indicate the cutting has died, and it should be removed before it affects healthy cuttings.

Cuttings will take 4-8 weeks to begin rooting. 

After 4 weeks, begin to gently tug on cuttings once per week to check for rooting progress. Keep track of cuttings that show slight resistance as these are the most likely to succeed. 

When the cuttings start showing signs of rooting, leave the humidity dome off for longer periods and use a watering can in the mornings to keep the roots moist.

Once the cuttings begin to show obvious signs of new growth or rooting, transplant them into individual containers and care for them like any other potted plant.

How to Use Bradford Pear Cuttings

So, now that you have some successful baby clones… what do you do with them?

Successful cuttings should be rooted and transplanted by mid-summer, and for the remainder of the growing season, you should focus on watering and light fertilizing until the following spring.

Once your cuttings have weathered their first winter, the next step depends on how you intend to use them.

How to Use Bradford Pear Cuttings as Ornamental Plants

While this is the most controversial use for these plants, it’s also the most popular. 

If you want your cuttings to turn into attractive landscape plants, focus on pruning to achieve an aesthetic, upright shape. 

Of course, you should also keep up with repotting, fertilizing, and basic care as needed. 

Transplant the cutting into the landscape when it is a few feet tall and has a basic, upright shape. Protect young transplants from deer and rabbits with fencing or netting.

Mulch, water, prune and fertilize as needed. 

Bradford Pears are fast-growing, weak trees, and they are susceptible to breaking in strong winds and storms. Prune off broken branches as soon as they occur. Do not plant trees near low-hanging power lines.

How to Use Bradford Pear Cuttings as Rootstock

The best use for Bradford Pear cuttings is as a rootstock for edible fruiting pears. 

A rootstock is the bottom half of a grafted tree. Growers use rootstock with desirable characteristics, like disease resistance, as a foundation for more sensitive fruiting trees. The top of the rootstock is cut off, and a cutting from the desired fruit tree (the scion) is grafted onto the cut.

As the cut heals, the rootstock and scion fuse together into one tree. The scion grows up into the trunk, branches, and fruiting limbs. Meanwhile, the rootstock provides a reliable root system and pest/disease resistance.

Most trees are compatible with varieties within the same genus, and some may be compatible with other trees within the same family. 

Pears are in the Pyrus genus within the Rosaceae family. Any other tree in the Pyrus genus should graft onto a Bradford Pear rootstock. However, anything outside the Pyrus genus is generally considered incompatible or unknown (although there’s room for experimentation).

Some growers are rumored to have successfully grafted apple scions onto Bradford Pear rootstock, but this is difficult and not widely practiced.

How to Graft a Scion onto a Rootstock

Grafting should take place the first winter after your cuttings have rooted. If you wait too long, you risk suckers forming from the base of the rootstock.

Find an Asian or European pear variety you want to use for the scion, and wait until late winter or very early spring to take cuttings. Scion cuttings should be taken before the buds begin to swell in the spring, while both the rootstock and the scion material are dormant.

Take cuttings in the same manner you took cuttings for the Bradford Pear. Try to find twigs the same diameter as your rootstock specimens.

There are many different techniques for cutting and attaching the scion to the rootstock, but the basic process is as follows:

  • Make a cut in the rootstock
  • Make an inverse cut in the scion
  • Match the two pieces together
  • Wrap the joint in plastic film, a plastic bag, or tape
  • Secure the joint with a sturdy wrap or splint
  • Keep the area moist until the cambium layer (bark) on both pieces heals together

Keep the rootstock well-watered and in indirect sunlight while the graft heals. It could be several months before you see evidence of new growth in the scion. 

Once the graft is complete and the joint is sturdy, remove the protective covering and care for the tree like any other potted plant. Transplant into the final location in the fall.

Grafting is an art form, and some growers like to experiment with grafting multiple species onto the same tree. Once you master the ability to take cuttings and create successful grafts, you can experiment with different fruits for aesthetic or practical purposes.

Keep your new pear trees happy and healthy by creating a companion garden to increase pollination and prevent pests. Read our Complete Guide to Companion Planting for Fruit Trees for more information. 

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