Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of retired Agriculture Department scientist John L. Creech.

A Push for Pr. George's To Impeach Pear Tree

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Bradford Pear tree, long a prized symbol of a gracious streetscape, is now being spurned by the place of its birth.

Prince George's County, where the tree was developed by government scientists in 1963, is joining a growing anti-Bradford movement, contemplating ditching it as the official county tree.

The Bradford's supposed sins are laid out like an indictment in a government resolution under consideration by the Prince George's County Council: Its weak limbs break off and litter roadways. Its invasive nature causes the tree to aggressively reproduce and push out other species. It's not native, its ancestry instead rooted in China.

Esther Mitchell, coordinator of a county gardeners' group that pushed for the resolution, puts it more simply: She calls the Bradford "a weed tree."

The fast-growing tree, with its startlingly full white spring blossoms and lollipop shape, was wildly popular for decades, planted up and down city streets and suburban byways through much of the country. But as in a morality tale, there is a lesson to be learned from the nation's experience with the Bradford: Surface beauty that brings instant gratification often hides deep flaws revealed only over time.

In the Bradford's case, that defect, in arborist lingo, is weak crotches.

The crotch is the joint between two branches and, as the Bradford matures, the spot becomes especially susceptible to breakage -- often without warning and often to the detriment of cars parked beneath it.

Government tree managers in Prince George's, Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery have all stopped planting the tree. In Baltimore, more than 100 Bradfords along Charles Street in the heart of downtown were pulled up this spring as part of a sidewalk renovation project. Other trees will be planted in their place.

In 2001, the trees were yanked out from the edges of the parking lot of the National Arboretum, as the country's plant experts feared for the safety of their cars.

"It looks very attractive for about a week in the spring," said Alan T. Whittemore, a plant taxonomist for the arboretum. "But the tree tends to grow for 15 years -- and then break apart on top of your Ferrari. Then it doesn't look so nice."

Passionate Bradford haters are easy to find. Susan Harris, a gardener from Takoma Park, chronicled her struggles with a despised tree she misguidedly planted in her yard more than 20 years ago, in a blog posting she titled "Death to My Bradford Pear."

Environmentalists deride the tree as an invasive species that kills local plants, reducing food supplies for native birds. Once thought largely sterile, the Bradford has now crossed with other pear varieties and become monstrously reproductive, invading local parks and roadways where never intended.

It has marched up Interstate 270 and down the Fairfax County Parkway. Planners in both Fairfax and Montgomery no longer allow developers to plant them in subdivisions.

"They just started to pop up everywhere," said Craig Herwig, Fairfax's urban forester. "It's really a problem -- they're taking away some of our native tree niches."

And the problems with Bradfords go on. Hybrids sometimes grow as thorny thickets. Whittemore said a farmer once called the National Arboretum to report young pear tree thorns so sharp they punctured the tires of his tractor.

There's also the matter of the putrid smell of the bloom, likened by some to urine, by others to vomit.

So how did the tree become so popular in the first place? Its history begins with a mystery.

In the early part of the 20th century, pear growers were desperate for a new variety of tree that would be resistant to fire blight, a disease killing off pear orchards. The U.S. Department of Agriculture then dispatched scientist Frank Meyer on an expedition to China to seek out new pear varieties that might be disease-resistant.

Meyer came up with the Chinese Pyrus calleryana, collected several hundred pounds of its seeds and, in 1918, boarded a riverboat headed to Shanghai.

When the boat arrived, the seeds were there, but Meyer was gone. The USDA launched a search for its missing plant collector, eventually discovering that his dead body had been fished out of the river and buried in a local cemetery. The circumstances of his death were never discovered.

But Meyer's seeds made it back to the United States, eventually arriving at the USDA's Plant Introduction Station in Glenn Dale. There, scientists studied the Callery Pear, finding that it was resistant to fire blight but did not produce edible fruit.

Station Chief Frederick Charles Bradford thought the tree might make a nice ornamental and was working on its release, until he collapsed and died of a heart attack while walking on station grounds in 1951.

Bradford's work was picked up by his successor, Frank L. Creech. It was Creech who noticed that one variety of the tree was particularly shapely with especially nice flowers.

Creech made cuttings of the tree and reproduced it. In honor of his deceased boss, Creech named it the Bradford Pear. His cultivation technique meant that, when eventually commercially released in 1963, every single Bradford Pear would be genetically identical to those first Glenn Dale trees.

"When you see them in bloom in early spring, and there's nothing else in flower and it's a pure white, it's pretty hard to resist," said Creech, now 88 and retired in North Carolina. "Then you see it in summer, the foliage is perfect. There are no insects. There are no diseases."

"People are just lucky to have them around," he added. "But they don't appreciate that fact."

In Prince George's, the tree was designated the official county tree in the early 1970s, public works spokeswoman Susan Hubbard said. It is honored alongside the county's official bird (the Eastern bluebird), herb (bee balm) and song ("Hail Prince George's").

The push to change the designation comes from the Prince George's Master Gardeners, volunteers trained by the University of Maryland to teach good horticultural techniques. Mitchell, coordinator of the group's 65 county gardeners, said they first met with two council members about two months ago to explain the tree's deficiencies.

"It's just not a good, sturdy tree," she explained.

In its place, the master gardeners have recommended the Allegheny Serviceberry, a more shrubby native tree that has similar white flowers in the spring, berries in the summer and nice fall colors, Mitchell said.

The council resolution, which has not been scheduled for a committee hearing, calls for creating a task force to review the recommendation.

Despite its troubles, the Bradford Pear has its defenders.

In the Laurel neighborhood of Montpelier, Paul Katz so loved the two trees the county planted for him in 1969 that he planted a third on his own 20 years later. He is still entranced by the sight, each spring, of the canopy of white flowers down the lane. "It's like a bridal bower," he said.

And Creech, who personally let the Bradford loose on the country more than four decades ago, stands by his tree.

"If it's pruned properly, it's fine," he insisted. Creech said he finds it "a little discouraging" to see people turn against the Bradford.

Still, he said he treasures conversations with nurserymen, who gratefully tell him that his tree helped put their children through college.

"It's had a good run," he said.

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