Clemson, South Carolina – In the distance, beside a brick house in a tidy section, trees rose over a wooden hedge, to show off all that made the Bradford pear so attractive: they were towering and mighty, and in early spring white flowers that turned their limbs into perfect clouds of cotton.
But when David Quill, a professor of forest health at Clemson University, stopped in his pickup truck, he could see the beast those trees had bred: a forbidden forest that had taken up a nearby open space, where the same white flowers were blooming uncontrollably in a thicket of tangled boughs studded with thorns. .
“When this tree is growing somewhere, it won’t take long for you to take over the whole thing,” said Professor Coyle, an expert on invasive species. “It wipes everything under it.”
Beginning in the 1960s, when suburbs spread across the South, giving way to mazes of dead-end roads and two-car garages, Bradford pears were the trees of choice. It was easily available, could thrive in almost any soil and had an attractive shape with red mahogany leaves lingering in the depths of autumn and flowers that appeared early in the spring.
Trees rose in popularity during a transformational period, as millions of Americans moved in search of the comfort and order that suburban neighborhoods were designed to provide. “Few Trees Have Every Desirable Trait,” The New York Times’ Gardening Pages announce In 1964, “But the ornate Bradford pear is unusually close to ideal.”
With all that promise, the trees ended up an impractical threat, one that has rattled botanists, homeowners, farmers, conservationists, utility companies and government officials in a growing swath of the country across the East Coast and reaching Texas and the Midwest.
In South Carolina, the fighting intensified. The country is in the process of banning the sale and trade of trees, becoming the second country to do so. Professor Coyle, who tracks plants and insects that have invaded South Carolina and attempts to limit their damage, has organized “reward” programs, where people who provide evidence of a massacred tree get a local alternative in return.
The downsides of the Bradford pear were subtle at first. Its white flowers, as beautiful as they were, smelled fetid The smell is almost fishy. But with age in trees, more and more negatives appeared. They had a weak substructure, which made them prone to snapping and falling in storms, sending their limbs to power lines, sidewalks, and rooftops they were meant to beautify.
But the most comprehensive result emerged as pear trees began to colonize open fields, farmland, river banks and ditches, rising among the pines along highways from Georgia to the Carolinas, outperforming native species and fluctuating ecosystems. The trees grow quickly, reaching a height of up to 15 feet within a decade. (It can eventually reach 50 feet high and 30 feet wide.)
You just can’t miss it,” said Tim Rogers, general manager of a company that sells plants and supplies to landscaping companies. “It’s everywhere.”
The Bradford pear is a cultivar of the pear, which means it is a cultivar produced by selective breeding—in this case, creating a tree without thorns than some other cultivar and not bothered by pests.
But like the familiar plot of science fiction stories, a creation that seemed too good to be true was, in fact, too good to be true. Bradford pears were described as sterile, but that wasn’t entirely true. Scientists said that two Bradford pears cannot reproduce, but they can cross-pollinate with other pear trees, and their seeds are widely dispersed by birds.
The resulting pear growth is what worries scientists: These trees spread quickly, have spines three or four inches long and cluster close together, disrupting the lives of insects and other plants. “It’s a food desert for birds,” Professor Coyle said, noting that the trees do not carry caterpillars and other herbivorous insects. “There is nothing to eat there.”
The pear, which is native to East Asia, was Originally brought to the United States by federal researchers seeking a species that is resistant to blight and can be bred with European pears to enhance fruit production. But scientists recognized its potential as an ornamental tree, which stimulated the development of the Bradford pear.
The tree’s popularity was largely concentrated in the Southeast and along the Mid-Atlantic coast. But it was planted all over the countryPointing lawns and entrances to divisions and commercial complexes.
“There are a few places where I’ve seen an entire campus planted with this one tree,” said Nina Basuk, professor and director of the Urban Horticultural Institute at Cornell University. “If you’re there in April, it’s only the White Sea.” But then she added, “Bradford became a problem.” Old trees are falling apart, she said, “and we’re starting to notice them in places where they weren’t planted.”
South Carolina officials added Bradford pears to the state’s list of plant pests this year, and Ban started which enters into force on October 1, 2024. Ohio is the only other state that has Similar measures have been taken, with a ban starting in 2023.
In other states, efforts to ban trees have met with resistance from the plant industry, the researchers said, given how much nurseries rely on their hardiness to use as rootstock.
But in South Carolina, industry leaders said researchers have convinced them that alternatives are available. The decision was also easier because, as a landscape tree, the Bradford pear has declined in popularity. “This plant has been in decline for a really long time,” said Mr. Rogers, who is also the president-elect of SC Green, an industry association.
In the past, customers would search for trees, even after their problems became more widely understood. “I would call them a necessary evil in terms of inventory,” said Mr. Rogers. But those days are long gone. “It’s not even in our catalog,” he added.
Scientists and officials said the public is developing a more sophisticated understanding of the consequences that landscaping choices can have. They point to the Southwest, where drought-friendly designs have grown in popularity as water has become more and more scarce.
In the south, many were already aware of the threat of invasive species as the area struggled with plants like a harem Most of all, kudzu, the Asian vine described as the plant that ate the south, covered much of the landscape and Breeding legends about The speed and extent of its growth.
However, state officials and homeowners are left to contend with the myriad pears that have been planted in Bradford in years past. On a Saturday last month, Professor Coyle traveled to Columbia, the state capital, to conduct the last of the bounty exchanges he had organized across South Carolina.
The flatbed trailer was loaded with dozens of native potted trees: beech oak, yellow poplar, persimmon, oriental red cedar, and sweet magnolia. Professor Coyle noted that the trailer was parked under the Chinese pistachio, another non-native plant.
Dozens of people who have signed up can collect one of the original trees in exchange for proof of a defeated pear tree. (It is enough to take a selfie with the tree).
Valerie Krupp had printed photos of Bradford pears that had flipped over in her yard, tore up her gutters and cut into the corner of her home. “I wish I had taken them out a lot sooner,” she said. Picking live oaks, chummard oaks, and magnolias, she looks forward to their growth and filling in the void left by the pear trees. “I enjoyed the shade,” she said.
When Rick Dorn loaded his surrogates into the bed of his truck, he described the agony of dealing with a pear infestation. The thorns may be the worst part. “They’re going to make a hole in a tire,” he said.
His family owns a plot of about 60 acres near Irmo, a suburb of Columbia. The trees had taken over the land, which, he pointed out, appeared around the same time with the subdivisions that now surround the estate.
Professor Coyle believes his efforts have made some progress: Hundreds of trees have been swapped through bounty programs, and bans have been seen as a major step. However, it was a gradual advance against the force of nature.
“I know this is not going to be a quick fix,” Professor Coyle said. “If we’re being honest, I’ll be working on a hardened pear my entire career.”
But incremental progress was better than nothing at all.
Little by little, he said, man. “Little by little.”