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Bradford pears are ‘Frankenstein’ trees. The state wants you to chop them down

‘These trees should be cut down’ Bradford pear trees invasive to SC plants

The South Carolina Forestry Commission promoted cutting down bradford pear trees in a Facebook video as part of National Invasive Species Awareness Week.
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The South Carolina Forestry Commission promoted cutting down bradford pear trees in a Facebook video as part of National Invasive Species Awareness Week.

As spring approaches, it’s easy to spot Bradford pear trees bursting with white blooms that brighten the South Carolina landscape.

But these harbingers of spring have an evil side that is so vile they should be eliminated, state foresters say.

The S.C. Forestry Commission is encouraging people who own vacant, wooded land to cut down every Bradford pear tree on their property, while asking folks in town to stop planting the prolific pear trees in yards.

Why?

Bradford pear trees are growing like weeds, spreading into forests and crowding out native trees in some places, the commission says. When these trees grow in natural forests, they create dense thickets, replete with sharp thorns, that make walking through the woods difficult. The thorns are so sharp and sturdy that they can puncture tractor tires.

More importantly, Bradford pears threaten native species and the quality of wood that might be harvested for paper and wood production, according to the Forestry Commission.

The trees also are brittle and spindly, meaning their branches easily break during high winds and storms, leaving cities littered with woody debris. The trees can even smell bad at times, according to the Forestry Commission. Some reports have likened the smell to that of dead fish.

“We are saying cut them down when possible,’’ Forestry Commission spokesman Doug Wood said. “It is just generally a nuisance tree.’’

Introduced in the U.S. from Asia, these pear trees became a landscaping tree of choice beginning in the 1960s and lasting through the early 2000s.

The trees were thought to be sterile so they would not spread and cause problems for native trees. But that hasn’t proven to be true. Beginning in the late 1990s, Bradford pears began producing fruit. Birds that eat the fruit of Bradford pears spread the seeds in their droppings, leading to stands of Bradford pears in forests, Wood and commission officials said.

Bradford pears are among scores of invasive plant species that are causing problems in South Carolina, experts say. The state is being overrun with certain types of nonnative plant species and animals, such as coyotes and armadillos.

Rick Woodley, who runs Woodley’s Garden Center in Columbia, said Bradford pears once were popular for landscaping, but he is reluctant to sell them now.

“We don’t carry the typical Bradford pear unless somebody is just asking for it,’’ he said. “ There are more things that are more hardy and protect the environment better.’’

The fast growing trees can reach 50 feet tall, with bushy canopies that spread up to 30 feet, according to Clemson University.

Cities, such as Columbia, are replacing Bradford pears they planted years ago with other species, Woodley said.

“I don’t know anybody that really says ‘I’m just a fan of Bradford pears,’ ‘’ Woodley said. “If you see them in the landscape, they are just horrible. These thunderstorms get into them and they look terrible.”

Some people liken Bradford pears to kudzu, the leafy Asian vine that has spread throughout the South.

Others say Bradford pears are like the fictional monster “Frankenstein’’ because they were not expected to be a problem by those who cultivated and planted them. A 2018 story in The Washington Post said the Bradford pear shows how even the smartest “scientific minds can go blind to what they might be creating, long after they have gone.’’

The Bradford pear, however, still has defenders. The trees provide the spring’s first color every year, while turning a brilliant red during the fall. In South Carolina, they often retain their leaves until early winter, then bloom again a few weeks later. And they help soak up carbon dioxide that worsens global warming, some say.

In a 2018 opinion letter to The New York Times, blogger and science writer Gabriel Popkin said outrage about Bradford pears is overblown.

“Whatever the tree’s faults, it’s a living, respirating, photosynthesizing plant,’’ he wrote. “It still makes shade on a hot day. It still sucks carbon dioxide out of the air. It still stops rainwater from pounding the soil and running off into sewers..’’

The Forestry Commission’s Wood said he doesn’t dispute that, but the commission believes they still are a problem.

“The Bradford pear is like the abortion debate or religion,’’ he said. “You have got some who are classically, eternally devoted to this tree. Others recognize its invasive nature.’’

Sammy Fretwell has written about the environment for more than 20 years. Among the matters he covers are climate change, wildlife issues, nuclear policy, pollution, land protection, coastal development, energy and state environmental policy. Fretwell, who grew up in Anderson County, is a University of South Carolina graduate. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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