Garden Help Desk: Finding Good Alternatives to Bradford Pears | News, Sports, Jobs

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Courtesy of Mary Hedengren

A characteristic of the Bradford pear is very narrow branch angles like the one seen here. These forks are weak and prone to breakage.

I like the look of Bradford pears, but I don’t like how they smell when they bloom! What are good alternatives for my garden?

On the surface, the Bradford Pear is a handsome tree. It blooms with brilliant white flowers in the spring, has dense foliage throughout the summer, and ends in brilliant red fall leaves. And to top it all off, there are small berry-like fruits that stay on the tree most of the winter!

But the Bradford Pear also has a dark side. and lately he has fallen out of favor. Some states have banned the sale of the Bradford pear and even offer bounties on the tree to their citizens. Why is this tree so controversial?

In many places, the Bradford pear is invasive, crowding out native species. This is less of a concern in our arid climate, but it can still be an environmental pest by not supporting native wildlife like our native species do. Even if it doesn’t spread to our forests, the Bradford Pear is spreading to our suburbs, contributing to a “monoculture” of a ubiquitous tree planted more for its looks than its performance.

In addition to environmental concerns, the Bradford pear has other disadvantages in a landscape.

Courtesy of Mary Hedengren

If Bradford pears don’t receive proper maintenance and inspections every year, problems like that branch crowded between other narrow branches go unattended while the growth is small and simple to fix.

The biggest problem here in Utah is that Bradford Pears can be subject to breakage. The branches of these trees grow very close together and almost vertically. The narrow crotch angles of the branches make them brittle, especially in heavy snow or winter storms. A large falling branch can cause a lot of damage. You can reduce the chances of breaking a dangerous limb with diligent pruning, but the Bradford pear, especially as it ages, is not a hardy tree.

Also, the flowers of the Bradford pear may look pretty, but most people think they smell bad.

Finally, Bradford Pears sends up suckers that can grow into saplings… which then send up their own suckers. You may need to cut the suckers several times a year. And Bradford pears aren’t always sterile either. It’s easy to see how these trees can get out of control!

If all of this convinces you to retire your Bradford pear or not to plant one, there are many tree varieties that can provide many of the same benefits.

Saskatoon, generally known as a shrub, also exists as a large single-trunked or multi-trunked tree. Consider the varieties Autumn Brilliance (Amelanchier x grandiflora “Autumn Brilliance”) or Snowcloud (Amelanchier laevis “Snowcloud”) for showy white flowers in spring, berries and orange-red foliage in fall. Saskatoon can be one of the best substitutes for a Bradford pear.

Courtesy of Meredith Seaver

The fall color of a healthy Bradford pear can add beauty to the fall landscape, but this tree needs constant attention and good care to avoid potential problems.

Another tree with white flowers, berries and shiny leaves is the thornless hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli “Inermis”). It is, as its name suggests, a hawthorn without thorns! It is a very hardy and tolerant plant with dense branches. Like the serviceberry, this hawthorn can be a tree or a shrub, or even a hedge.

Crabapples have spring flowers like Bradford pears, but smell much, much better. Consider native varieties like sweet crabapple (Malus coronaria) rather than potentially invasive Asian varieties (Malus toringo and Malus floribunda Sieb. Ex Van Houtte).

Not to be confused with our native red-twig dogwood (Cornus servicea) shrub, flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) feature large spring flowers, dark red berries, and burgundy fall foliage. Be aware that even though Eastern Flowering Dogwood grows in Utah, it may not thrive because it is not adapted to our hot, dry climate and alkaline soils. Your Eastern Flowering Dogwood may not reach the height and level of bloom described in its description.

You may be happy with your Bradford pears if you look at them more than you smell them, but you may want to consider other options for flowers, foliage, and fruit instead of choosing the ubiquitous Bradford pear as the default.

How often should I water to establish new plantings?

There is no fixed amount of water or single frequency for watering new plantings. The water needs of new transplants depend on the type of plant, its size, the type of soil and the time of year.

In general, plants should be watered deeply when planting and then mulched. This deep soaking at planting time makes all the difference. In my own yard and garden, I first fill the planting hole with water, let it soak, plant, then do another deep soak. After that, a deep soak may be needed once every 4-7 days, depending on soil type and weather. Keep in mind that deeper, less frequent watering is best.

The best watering practice is to pay attention to your plants and the weather, checking the soil moisture about an inch or two in the soil every few days and watering deeply as needed, instead of water on a fixed schedule.



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