Bradford pear trees (Pyrus calleryana) are popular throughout the United States because they bloom white flowers in early spring, grow quickly, and display an aesthetic rounded crown. Bradford pear trees are also known for splitting apart at maturity from weak wood and an unstable structure.
Topping a tree is a pruning method that some homeowners might consider in order to reduce the weight of their Bradford’s branches, but the negative aspects of topping a Bradford pear tree far outweigh the positive. To be clear…
Topping is not a recommended method for maintaining Bradford pear trees. It can result in the limbs becoming even more fragile as they become over-weighted. You should remove entire limbs from the tree when pruning is needed.
Initially praised by the Department of Agriculture as the perfect solution for beautifying suburbia, Bradford pear trees now have American homeowners crossing their fingers every time a storm rolls through.
Let’s explore what topping is, why it’s not a good idea for Bradford pear trees, and some better solutions.
What is the Definition of “Topping?”
Purdue University defines topping as “the drastic removal or cutting back of large branches in mature trees. The tree is sheared like a hedge and the main branches are cut to stubs.” (source)
You may have seen this, for example, along roadsides where huge sections of trees are sliced off to create a passage for power lines. It’s also apparent during winter when you notice some trees have a lot of long stems shooting straight up from stubby scaffolds.
Why Shouldn’t You Top a Bradford Pear Tree?
Perhaps you have a Bradford pear tree threatening to drop a limb or two, and you’re eyeing topping as a way to reduce the weight of the branches.
Arborists everywhere disapprove of topping any type of tree, but there are also a number of reasons why topping Bradford pear trees specifically is a bad idea:
- Topping Makes Trees Unsightly
Topping destroys the natural shape of a tree, reducing its aesthetic appeal. Leafless trees with abruptly terminated scaffolds look hideous.
The only thing Bradford pear trees have going for them is that they look nice right up until they fall apart. Take away their beauty and it defeats the purpose of having the trees in the first place.
- Topping Weakens Trees
Proper pruning involves cutting individual branches close to where they intersect with the trunk or other branches. Topping trees cuts their branches off in the middle where the branch does not easily heal.
This exposes sensitive tissue to the elements, making the tree vulnerable to sunburn, pests, diseases, and fungi.
According to Virginia State University, topped branches are more likely to break off in a storm because they usually start dying back or decomposing. (source)
- Topping Starves Trees
A tree’s roots require starches created by the photosynthesis process in the tree’s leaves. Topping removes a huge number of leaves which reduces the amount of food the tree can produce, so the tree draws on its reserves. In other words, it enters starvation mode. (source)
- Topping is a Waste of Money
According to Clemson University, Bradford pear trees grow 30 to 50 feet tall, so you’ll likely need to hire someone to top the tree for you.
Home Advisor estimates the cost of tree topping to be $400-$800. For comparison, removing the tree entirely would cost $400-$1200. (source)
Topping causes a tree to produce suckers off the main branches which grow much faster than regular branches. This requires regular trimming for upkeep which adds up financially as well.
Furthermore, according to the University of Virginia, topping trees decreases their real estate value by 20-100%. Correct pruning increases tree value. (source)
Considering this tree only lives for about 20 years, the cost of topping and trimming is not worth it.
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Topping might keep your Bradford pear tree from being a danger in the short term but, ultimately, makes it weaker and ugly, all for a high price. Even if spending a few thousand dollars is not a problem for you, spending it on a Bradford pear tree is a waste. Let’s explore some better options: pruning and removal.
How Do You Control a Bradford Pear Tree?
One way to prevent a Bradford pear tree from becoming a liability is to prune the tree to stabilize its structure.
Pruning Tips for Bradford Pear Trees
Too many branches bunching around the trunk is the Bradford curse. It’s likely you will need to conduct thinning cuts at the central leader to create space between the scaffold branches.
The University of Minnesota offers some tree-pruning advice:
- Remove branches that show signs of cracking
- Thin out competing branches
- Remove branches that point downwards or towards the center of the tree
- Cut large branches from underneath so when the limb falls, it does not rip the bark off of the trunk
- Cut the larger branches first
- Take away any branch that has a diameter greater than the trunk
- Remove shoots that spring up vertically from branches called watersprouts
- Remove vigorous suckers growing at the base of the tree
To prune a large branch, Utah State University Extension recommends the double cut method which actually consists of three cuts:
- Cut 1 – Branch Underside
The first cut should be made underneath the branch but farther out than the final cut. Cut a third of the way through the branch.
- Cut 2 – Top of Branch
Make the second cut on top of the branch a couple of inches past the first cut. Cut until the branch falls away cleanly without damage to the bark. This removes most of the limb’s weight to help make a clean and healthy final cut.
- Cut 3 – Final Collar Cut
The third and final cut should be made along the base of the branch ideally about halfway into the collar and 45 degrees from the vertical trunk. This YouTube video gives an excellent demonstration of this process:
With the way Bradford pears bunch up close together, be careful not to injure the bark of other branches with your saw.
You’re more likely to achieve a solid structure if you mold your Bradford pear while it is still young, but better yet is to kill the tree and replace it with a worthy native species.
Killing and Replacing a Bradford Pear Tree
While pruning is a workable solution in the short term, the best way to control the tree is to cut it down entirely and kill it.
You might miss the Bradford pear tree’s beauty, but you surely will not miss the stench of its flowers which, according to North Carolina State University, “smell like a decaying animal.” (source)
Apply an herbicide to the stump so that the roots die and never give life to a Bradford shoot again.
PennState specifies that oil-based herbicides do not require immediate application, but both the exposed cross-sections and the sides of the stump need treatment. Water-based herbicides must be administered right away on the newly exposed tissue. (source)
If you’re not ready to cut down the tree immediately, you can always kill the tree ahead of time with the basal bark method or hack-and-squirt.
Plant a native species instead--one that supports local wildlife. A comparable tree that supports the ecosystem is the downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), which, like the Bradford pear tree, presents beautiful white blooms in early spring and provides an attractive display of color in fall.
Essentially, topping always harms trees, requires upkeep to stay ahead of vigorous watersprouts, and exacerbates the problem it tries to solve.
A better idea is to prune your poorly structured tree so it becomes more stable. However, this still means you have a terrible tree in your yard.
Better still: Don’t waste time and effort nurturing a tree that invades native wildlife, falls apart in storms, lives about as long as a Canadian goose, and stinks (literally and figuratively). Instead, kill the Bradford pear tree with herbicide and replace it with something worth your energy and resources.