Bradford Pears are considered to be an invasive species in 29 states, with more states planning to ban the tree completely.
And yet, despite the dwindling market for these landscape plants, they continue to show up in nurseries across the United States. Why?
Because Bradford Pears are a low-maintenance, fast-growing landscape option that provides a beautiful spring display of white flowers.
Transplant Bradford Pears in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Plant the tree in full sun into well-drained soil. Water the tree thoroughly before, during, and after the transplanting process.
While these trees have some redeeming features, it’s important to understand why Bradford Pears are considered invasive, what you can do to grow them responsibly, and if there are alternative plants that may be a better fit for your landscape.
What is a Bradford Pear?
Callery Pears were originally brought over from China in an attempt to bolster commercial pear production in the United States. These wild pear trees produced tiny, inedible fruits, but they were related to edible pear species and had superior pest resistance. This made them an excellent choice for a rootstock to improve disease resistance in commercial orchards.
During the research process, one specific tree stood out as a potential ornamental. It had an attractive, upright shape, beautiful spring flowers, and a striking fall color. Growers began taking cuttings and propagating them for landscape use and named this first cultivar “Bradford”.
Sales skyrocketed, and the Bradford Pear quickly became the tree of choice for commercial and residential landscapes. The trees had a predictable, vase-like shape, they filled in quickly, and they were sterile, so they didn’t produce fruit.
Soon, growers tried to produce new and improved cultivars from the original Callery Pears. They were able to create stronger trees, but ultimately, this is what caused the Bradford Pear to become invasive.
Pear trees are naturally self-infertile, meaning a tree cannot pollinate itself. When the Bradford Pear was introduced, the trees were all genetically identical clones, so they were still unable to pollinate themselves. This is part of what made the tree so attractive to landscapers; they could enjoy a full spring bloom without the mess of fruit in the fall.
However, the new cultivars were created from other trees, and this gave them the ability to cross-pollinate. When these new cultivars were planted in landscapes, they pollinated the existing Bradford Pears, which then started producing fruit.
As luck would have it, birds loved the little fruits, and they started eating them and spreading seeds. The resilient nature of Callery Pears allowed the seeds to germinate and flourish in wild settings, and this began the invasion of the wild ornamental pear.
The trees were able to outcompete native plants, and soon there were meadows of wild, hybridized Callery Pears where a diverse ecosystem had been.
Eventually, states started banning the sale of Bradford Pears in an attempt to eradicate the species, but the fight is ongoing. Bradford Pears are still a popular landscape tree, and many homeowners are unaware of the invasive nature of these plants.
Can You Plant Bradford Pears if They are Invasive?
An invasive plant is a non-native plant that is able to reproduce and spread quickly and disrupt native ecosystems.
Most conservation laws attempt to limit the transportation of invasive species, such as moving certain plants or animals across state lines. Only two states have banned the sale of Bradford Pear to the public: Ohio and South Carolina (source).
However, even if the sale of Bradford Pears is banned, there are no laws requiring existing trees to be cut down, or preventing individuals from propagating and planting their own specimens.
So, legally, if a Bradford Pear is able to be sold, it is legal to plant.
Also, it is legal to propagate and plant your own Bradford Pears.
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While we do not recommend planting invasive species, the choice is up to the homeowner.
How to Transplant a Bradford Pear
Before you install any landscape plant, make sure you have a location with adequate space, soil, and sunlight.
While Bradford Pears are low-maintenance, they are also fairly weak and susceptible to breaking. Plant the tree in the best possible location to prevent unnecessary stress.
It’s important to consider the mature height and width and how that will affect surrounding plants and structures. Bradford Pears are considered to be a fast-growing tree, which means it will fill in quickly, but it has a significantly shorter lifespan than slow-growing trees.
Bradford Pears will grow to a mature height of 20’-50’, and a mature width of 15’-30’.
One of the most common mistakes homeowners and landscapers make is to plant young trees under power lines or too close to a building. Before you purchase a Bradford Pear (or any other tree) make sure you have a location that will allow for the full-grown size of the tree.
Wherever you decide to plant your tree, make sure it’s in an area where the mess from the fruits is either easy to clean or far enough away from sidewalks and driveways to not be a problem.
Bradford Pears were originally propagated because they tolerate a wide range of soil conditions.
However, although they can grow in almost any soil type, they prefer rich, well-drained soils high in organic matter.
As the tree grows, it becomes less fussy about the soil. Mix in 1 part compost to 3 parts soil when you plant a Bradford Pear to help establish a strong root system. Each spring, add a 2”-4” layer of compost from the base of the tree to the drip line and cover the compost with mulch.
Bradford Pears need full sun. Plant the tree in an area where the full-sized tree will receive 6-10 hours of direct sunlight each day.
If a Bradford Pear does not have enough light, the tree will have decreased blooms and a dull fall color. It also makes the tree more susceptible to pests and diseases, which can shorten the lifespan and lead to premature breakage.
Ball & Burlap vs. Container Grown vs. Bare Root
There are three primary ways to purchase a tree:
- Ball & Burlap: The tree is grown in a field and wrapped in burlap before delivery
- Container: The tree is grown in a plastic container
- Bare Root: A dormant tree shipped without any growing media
So, which one is best?
Ball & Burlap
Ball & burlap trees are best for homeowners who are willing to spend a little extra money for a mature specimen.
Ball & burlap (or, b&b) trees are grown in a field setting. Eventually, the tree is dug up and the rootball is wrapped in burlap. This may happen immediately before delivery to the customer, or before delivery to a nursery, where the tree may sit for several years.
Ball & burlap trees are older than container-grown trees. They also have a more developed root system, and do not have circling or girdling roots like container-grown specimens. This helps b&b trees develop a thick, healthy root system in the surrounding soil.
Container-grown trees are best for homeowners who are looking for a cheaper option, or who don’t mind waiting a few extra years for the tree to grow enough to fill in the landscape.
Container-grown trees are usually smaller and younger than b&b trees. Most container-grown trees are only a couple of years old and a few feet high, and they require some sort of protection from deer and rabbits.
The major drawback to container-grown trees is circling or girdling roots. Roots that hit the walls of the container will bend and follow the container in a circle, which can eventually lead to roots that strangle themselves or wrap around the trunk and girdle the trunk.
You can mitigate this problem with root pruning before you transplant, but trees with extreme circling may have difficulty establishing a healthy root system.
Bare-root trees are best for homeowners who want to plant a lot of trees at one time.
Bare-root trees are shipped when they are dormant without any growing media around the root ball. This makes the trees easier to ship because they are much lighter and not as susceptible to moisture loss.
Bare-root trees are perfect for lining driveways or walkways, because all the trees will be the same age and size, and you have time to get them planted and acclimated before active growth resumes in the spring.
How to Transplant a Tree
After you buy your tree/s, it’s time to plant.
Transplanting a tree is fairly simple, although there are a few best practices that help ensure the tree has a solid foundation and the best possible chance at growing a healthy root system.
Step 1: Timing
Plant ball & burlap or container-grown trees any time from spring through fall.
Planting in the fall gives the roots time to grow and prepare for dormancy without the stress of going into the heat of summer. However, fall planting isn’t always possible, and planting too close to the first freeze could harm the root system.
Planting in the spring gives the roots an entire growing season to establish themselves before the first freeze. However, this can also stress out young trees because they have to deal with summer heat while trying to heal from being transplanted.
Bare-root trees should be planted in late fall or early spring while the tree is dormant.
Plant bare-root trees between the first and last frost; ideally, you should plant trees as soon as they are shipped to keep them from drying out. Most nurseries will wait to ship bare root nursery stock until the right time to plant, so this is the best indicator for when to get them in the ground.
Step 2: Soil Preparation
Bradford Pears became popular because they were able to survive in almost any soil type. This is part of what made them a staple in residential landscapes.
However, Bradford Pears perform best in rich, well-drained soils. Bradford Pears have weak branching patterns, and they are prone to breaking in high winds or under heavy snow loads. You can reduce the risk of your tree losing limbs by providing a healthy foundation.
Dig a hole twice the width and depth of the tree’s root ball. Remove large rocks, debris, and plant material from the soil.
Fill the bottom half of the hole with a 50-50 mixture of compost and soil. You can use less compost if your soil is already healthy, but be careful not to make the soil too rich by adding more than 50% compost.
Mix the remaining soil with 50% compost as you fill in the rest of the hole. As you continue to level the tree and fill in around the roots, mix in compost and break up the outside of the root ball to incorporate the soil in the burlap or container into the compost/soil mixture in the hole.
Step 3: Planting the Tree
The most important part of planting a tree is getting the correct depth. If the tree is planted too low, the soil and mulch will slowly build up around the trunk and may cause decay, which will harm the overall health of the tree.
If the tree is planted too shallow, the roots may be exposed to open air, which can cause them to dry out and split or crack. This affects the overall health of the root system and may increase the risk of the tree falling over.
If you are planting a ball & burlap tree, you first have to choose whether or not you are going to remove the burlap. Landscapers are divided on this issue, and there is no wrong decision. The main goal is to make sure the roots have the ability to establish a strong, widespread root system.
Whether you leave the burlap on or decide to take it off, you absolutely must remove the wire or twine that holds the burlap in place. Then, you can try removing the entire burlap covering, or just pull it back enough to be buried under the soil.
Some trees have already grown through the burlap, and it’s impossible to remove the fabric without disrupting some roots. As long as the burlap isn’t too thick, there is no harm in leaving it to decompose in the soil.
You can cut slits in the fabric to encourage roots to explore, and if you accidentally cut a few roots off in the process, don’t worry. This will only encourage a more fibrous root system.
If you are planting a container-grown tree, remove the tree from the container and break up the root ball to disrupt circling roots. Use a small trowel or fork to break up the sides of the root ball, and gently tease out the thick roots at the bottom to help them straighten.
If you are planting a bare-root tree, be careful not to cut or damage the outer layer of the roots. Gently spread the roots out to encourage an even root system.
Regardless of the type of tree you’re planting, you want to fill in the hole with soil until you can set the tree into the hole and the point where the roots meet the trunk is a few inches above the topsoil. Then, fill in around the sides of the root ball until the soil is raised a few inches above the topsoil.
Water the tree, and the soil should settle to be even with the topsoil. If the tree is still too high, gently move the trunk back and forth to get it to settle into place.
Step 4: Maintenance
Once the tree is planted, you should implement a regular maintenance schedule to keep the tree healthy.
First, create a mulch ring 2”-4” deep from the trunk to the drip line. The mulch should not touch the trunk. Use cedar or other hardwood chips for the best results.
Second, decide on a fertilization schedule. Bradford Pears aren’t heavy feeders, but they do benefit from light fertilization.
If you regularly fertilize your lawn, that should be sufficient for the tree.
If you don’t fertilize your lawn, but you have healthy soil, you may not need anything beyond an annual application of compost. However, if you have poor soil and do not fertilize your lawn, consider using a light fertilizer in the spring and/or fall to maintain strong branches.
Third, incorporate your new tree into your pruning schedule. Bradford Pears are weak, and they can become weaker with intense pruning. However, dead, diseased, and weak branches should be pruned off to encourage a stronger branching structure.
Prune in early spring or late fall to remove branches that angle upward. Prune off dead, diseased, and damaged branches any time during the growing season.
Finally, create a consistent irrigation schedule. Although Bradford Pears are tolerant of many different climates, they benefit from consistent, thorough irrigation.
Immediately after planting, water each morning to help the tree recover from transplant shock. After a few weeks, you can reduce this to 2-3 times per week.
Continue watering a few times per week during the first active growing season. Once the tree is established, you can water it every few weeks or as needed.
Although Bradford Pears are a sore subject for some landscapers, they can be a beautiful part of a responsible homeowner’s lawn or landscape. Just make sure that you understand the issues that they can bring. This YouTube Video gives a good overview: