This is an urgent warning: Public Enemy Number One is lurking outside your window right now! RUN!!
Actually, don't run; just amble outdoors in a desultory fashion and look around. Once there, odds are you'll see at least one representative of the most rotten, no-good, dastardly plants in the Hoosier landscape- the Bradford pear tree.
"Whoaaa!!" you say after hearing that I have viciously insulted the landscaping of you and/or your neighbors. "What's wrong with ornamental pears? They are a nice-looking, compact tree that is covered with white flowers in the spring!" you protest.
And I'll agree but, if you dig deeper, you'll realize why ornamental pears are so problematic that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources recently felt compelled to send out a state-wide press release admonishing Hoosiers to turn their back on the trees.
Taking such an action to speak out against perhaps one of the most beloved landscaping plants is highly noteworthy. In fact, I can't even imagine the DNR having the moxie to take on the powerful and exceedingly violent Nursery industry. Picture dozens of old pick-up trucks, laden with rakes and mulch, lurking around the statehouse, black-tinted windows hiding goons who are waiting for DNR staffers to walk to their cars. Imagine assault by tank sprayer and pitchfork.
Oh wait; I was thinking instead of the International Hooligan Union, primarily because I had a cocktail before sitting down at the computer.
Regardless, the DNR did recently call on everyone to quit using the ubiquitous landscaping trees.
The problem with Bradford and other such ornamental pear cultivars is that they cross-pollinate very easily and have become the number one invasive tree species, crowding out more desirable trees not only in urban areas but even in rural locations. As Carrie Tausher, urban forestry coordinator for the DNR Division of Forestry said in the DNR press release, "It's common to find them (ornamental pears) in unmown areas under utility lines and in fields initially cleared for construction that are then left fallow."
Ornamental pears were originally thought to be non-invasive because the cultivars were unable to self-pollinate and produce fruit. However, so many trees of various strains were planted that by the 1990's it became apparent that the different cultivars were interbreeding quite easily. These trees produced ten-seeded fruit that is readily eaten by birds and further dispersed. The impromptu cross-breeding also resulted in trees that began to exhibit negative traits previously suppressed in the parent plants, such as thorniness.
Even in the beginning, Bradford pears were never really a good landscape tree because they are very short-lived and exceptionally brittle. After any thunderstorm or minor ice storm, landscaped areas are littered with broken limbs or even whole mature ornamental pear trees snapped off even when there is no other damage to surrounding plants or buildings. Aside from esthetic and cleanup issues, this also becomes a problem if the trees are near power, cable television or telephone lines.
The beautiful and abundant white flowers in springtime are the major selling point for ornamental pears. However, this isn't even such a great deal when you consider the display is very short-lived and smells badly, even worse than my wet waders when I leave them in the back of a hot car overnight.
All in all, there aren't many positives to ornamental pears but "they" keep selling them because of consumer demand. It's time to stop.
There are options that are better looking, better-smelling, and non-invasive. We highly recommend using native species as they won't become invasive because they are already naturally present in the ecosystem, plus they are adapted to the climate and local pests.
There are several species that are recommended in place of ornamental pears. They include: flowering crab, Eastern redbud, red horse chestnut, serviceberry, flowering dogwood, yellowwood or the American smoke tree. Most of these, except the flowering crab, won't be found in the garden section of the local Megamart but can be purchased at 'real' plant nurseries or ordered online.
There was a time when Bradford pears were the "next big thing" in landscape plantings. However, as time marches on and the world changes, there comes a time when we need to re-evaluate our choices. It has become readily apparent that ornamental pears are one of those choices that have outlived whatever usefulness it might have had.
It's time to dump those Bradford's and do something different. It's time to re-imagine your neighborhood or lawn as a place where new, better-quality trees are not only esthetically pleasing but provide tangible benefits to the property owner, wildlife and the environment in general.
So today, when you're chopping down that Bradford next to the driveway, ignore the pickup truck with the dark windows that keeps driving by. It's probably just landscapers looking for a certain outdoor writer.
Brent T. Wheat is an award-winning columnist, and publisher of WildIndiana.com. His column appears weekly in The Times.