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The Flowering Pear Bears Bitter Fruit!

Q. I have a 'Cleveland' pear tree that's 3 or 4 years old. No fruit yet. My friend's pear tree took a few years before bearing fruit; should I just be patient? Or do I need to prune these tall limbs back? It looks ludicrous to me for them to be so high. Thanks,

--- Internet listener Melinda in Hampton, VA

A. Patience is a virtue that often bears fruit, but all the patience in the world won't produce edible fruit on that tree. The 'Cleveland pear' (proper name "Cleveland Select", and apparently the same variety as "Chanticleer") is an ornamental, not a fruiting pear. Bred to produce flowers in the Spring that do not go on to form edible fruit, it is a close cousin/improved variety of the famous and notorious "Bradford pear", which has the dubious distinction of being the single-most over planted tree in America.

Had it been a true, fruiting pear, you should have been pruning it every winter, but these ornamental versions, known as "callery pears" are designed to grow tall quickly, and are planted by many homeowners and municipalities for just that reason; they grow fast, providing screening and shade in just a few years. Seemingly admirable qualities, right? So why, then, does this ubiquitous landscape and street tree appear on so many "don't plant" and invasive species lists?

"In the world of trees, 'fast-growing' almost always equals weak and short-lived", explains Arborist Jim Woodworth, Director of Tree Planting for the non-profit group "Casey Trees" in Washington DC. "That's why we haven't installed a single flowering pear in our program to re-tree the DC area; they're weak, have brittle branches and a life span of only about 20 years." He adds that he personally doesn't see much difference between the original Bradford and the newer named varieties of flowering pears, like that too-tall 'Cleveland'.

"It's a shame really," he continues; "they were developed at the National Arboretum to provide homeowners with a fast-growing, flowering tree that would be free of pest and disease problems—but even the breeder eventually came to regret working on them." Asked for alternative, better-behaved flowering trees with a decent rate of growth, he names two natives: The well-known redbud and the much lesser known yellowwood, "an underutilized tree with beautiful white blossoms and a great looking bark that provides year-round interest."

Scott Aker, current Head of Horticulture at the National Arboretum, adds that flowering pear trees have also inadvertently become invasive. "The original Bradford pear was fruitless when it was first developed," he explains; "at most it might produce tiny little sterile fruits. But over time it's been able to cross pollinate—perhaps with these newer named varieties—and now those little fruits have become viable. They're still really small—just the size of a pea or a marble—but birds eat them and spread the seed, and now wild trees are everywhere.

"They're especially a problem in Tennessee, where they've been officially deemed invasive, which is kind of ironic, as Tennessee is—or at least was—a major producer of flowering pears." Adding insult to injury, he notes that the trees, once totally resistant to the fire blight that plagues fruiting pears, are now being attacked by a mutated strain of the disease. His top choices for landscape alternatives are flowering cherries for amazing Spring color and bur oak for a sturdy, dependable shade tree that has a nice steady rate of growth.

Q. My neighbors and I smell a strong odor—a combination of fertilizer, sewage and dead fish—in the springtime, just when the Bradford Pear trees bloom. Could it be the trees? I've never noticed the smell before, but there are a lot of those trees in this particular area.

    ---Pattie in Bowie, MD

A. Alas, it is the trees, Patski. In a great little article titled "Why you shouldn't plant a Bradford pear" at his website "Growing the Home Garden", Dave Townsend notes that "an extremely odoriferous aroma tags along" with the beautiful flowers in the Spring. He finds the smell "reminiscent of rotting flesh or bad fish left out in the sun."

Scott Aker concurs, leaning towards the choice of 'old fish'. "Anytime a plant smells like that, it tells you that the flowers are pollinated by flies and beetles, as opposed to bees" explains Aker. "That's the kind of smell that attracts them."

This tree get less sweet by the minute!

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