As spring begins to slowly bloom all around us, the white flowers of the Bradford pear become a common sight. For years, the Bradford pear has been seen as an iconic Southern tree (mostly because they were planted everywhere). They’ve become a popular choice in landscaping because of their rapid growth and abundant blooming, however, not all that blooms is beautiful (to paraphrase). These well-known trees branch from a single point and bear extremely weak wood, making them especially vulnerable in storms. The stinky scent of their flowers and dense growth that often shades out other plantings is yet another reason to look elsewhere for a source of beautiful spring blooms.
The Bradford pear is a cultivar of the Callery pear, Pyrus calleryana, introduced from China. It generally cross-pollinates with other Callery pear varieties as it cannot reproduce with itself or other ‘Bradford’ trees. These hybrid trees are invasive and can spread rapidly when fruit is eaten by birds and spread to other habitats. Because they are some of the earliest trees to leaf out and flower in the spring they can often outcompete native plants. Some quick identification hints include scalloped leaves that are dark green, shiny and ovate, white flowers in very early spring, and its pyramidal growth habit.
So, we’ve told you what NOT to plant...now what? Here are a couple of native trees and shrubs that provide beautiful blooms, but are not invasive to our natural areas:
American Plum, Prunus Americana, is a small, deciduous, single trunk tree or multi-stemmed shrub. As a tree, it typically grows 10-12 feet tall with a broad, spreading crown. As a shrub, it suckers freely and can form dense growth. As it blooms and early spring and also features white flowers, it makes an excellent alternative to the Bradford pear. Furthermore, it provides habitat for wildlife and attracts many different pollinators.
Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida, is a small, deciduous, flowering tree that may grow 15 to 25 feet tall. The tree is best known for its abundant, showy white (occasionally pink) flowers that emerge in early spring. This tree also produces a cluster of red drupes that mature in the fall. The Dogwood flower is the state flower of North Carolina so you can easily find the tree planted throughout the state. It also makes for a wonderful habitat for wildlife and attracts many different pollinators.
While, of course, the choice is yours, we hope that you give an extra thought to these suggestions before planting Bradford pears. Help us to preserve and protect our natural areas and habitats by choosing native plants!
Written by: Hannah S. Smith - Horticulture Extension Agent