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Gardening in Gwinnett: Bradford pear trees have worn out their welcome

One of the most popular trees over the past few decades has been the Bradford pear. This tree has been planted extensively by homeowners and landscapers because of its rapid growth, beautiful pyramidal form, white flowers in the spring and colorful fall foliage.

The trees are able to grow in all types of environmental conditions and are resistant to many diseases and insects. Bradford pears have been planted extensively along streets and in front of homes and businesses.

However, they have a major flaw. The tree's rapid growth, weak wood and poor branch structure become apparent when it reaches 10 to 20 years old. Large sections of the canopy collapse under the tree's own weight, or parts of the tree are broken off thanks to wind, rain or ice. Often, many older trees are missing a chunk of limb and trunk.

The angle of the Bradford pear's branches is too narrow. As the branches increase in size, the tree begins to push itself apart. Sometimes, parts break off and fall on someone's house or car, causing damage, as often occurs following storms. Pruning to correct the problem can be difficult, but attempts to improve branch angles and structure should be done in winter or early spring, before growth begins.

Recently, several Bradford pears were cut down in the Virginia-Highland area of Atlanta because of the hazards they presented to motorists and pedestrians. They will be replaced with other types that do not have these problems.

So, avoid planting the Bradford pear and go with an alternative tree.

There are other types of flowering pear tree cultivars, such as Aristocrat, Chanticleer, Select or Stonehill. However, some of these varieties are afflicted with fire blight, a bacterial disease.

There are also alternative trees available that are attractive and durable. For fast-growing alternatives, consider using Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis) or Japanese Zelkova. Both are sturdy, can grow in difficult situations, and are resistant to insects and diseases. The Chinese Pistache has excellent fall color.

For spring flowering trees, consider using alternatives such as crabapple, serviceberry or fringe trees. Some of these trees also produce ornamental fruit and can grow 20 to 40 feet in height. The Callaway crabapple variety can tolerate the intense heat and dryness of our summers here in Georgia.

Two types of fringe trees are available: the American fringe has an informal look, while the Chinese fringe grows a more compact canopy. The trees have glossy leaves like Bradford pears.

Smaller flowering trees, such as dogwoods and redbuds, can also be considered as an alternative to the Bradford pear.

The Bradford pear has taught us a valuable lesson. Growing and observing them in different environmental conditions has helped us to understand the obvious disadvantages of a tree that first leaves an impression of beauty.

Timothy Daly is an agricultural and natural resource agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.