Caring for Bradford Pear Trees

Problems, Solutions, and Gardening Tips

White flowers of Bradford pear tree in spring.
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One should take care to give the devil his due and, in this case, the "devil" is Bradford pear trees. Experts warn that it's a mistake to plant the Pyrus calleryana 'Bradford', and rightly so: The limbs of these fast-growing trees break too easily in stormy weather. You can see the limbs of many of these specimens lying on the ground after a good wind.

But there's no need to restrict our reports to the negative. So, in that spirit, let's acknowledge that if we look out the window in a place like New England (U.S.) in early December, we may well be treated to the color afforded by a Bradford pear tree. These trees are still almost fully clothed in their orangey-bronze or reddish autumn leaves in the otherwise drab December landscape.

As such, Bradford pear trees often stand as the lone torchbearers of a period in very late autumn after Halloween decorations have come down but before the procrastinators have put out their outdoor Christmas decorations to cheer up passersby. Almost all of the other colorful fall-foliage trees will have exchanged their autumn garb for winter nudity by that time. Can we at least be grateful for the mistake that a neighbor, for example, may have made in planting a Bradford pear tree?

While we appreciate the fall color that they furnish, they're better known for their massive white flowering displays in spring. By the way, this is one of the plants with bad-smelling flowers. But if you can hold your nose and just use your eyes, the show they put on can be spectacular. They're popular street trees, and a road lined with them looks like it is in the midst of a spring blizzard. They also bear tiny pears, which, while not especially ornamental, do serve as food for wild birds.

Nonetheless, it's a fact that these flowering trees are highly problematic. Below are included some of the most common care problems encountered in growing Bradford pear trees. But they present a number of lower-level problems, as well, including:

  1. The fact that they are invasive plants in some areas of North America, P. calleryana being native to the Far East. 
  2. They are prone to suckering, and, unfortunately, manual control is the only viable control method, as the root system would take up any herbicide applied and it would harm the parent plant.

What's the Alternative to Growing This Cultivar?

The easiest solution to all of the care problems that you will face in growing the 'Bradford' cultivar is to simply find a superior cultivar to grow. Yes, there are other types of ornamental pears, plants that will give you loads of white flowers in spring and good fall color. P. calleryana 'Autumn Blaze' is an example. It will give you all of the benefits of Bradford without the health problems. Other types of "callery" pears (so called because of the species name, calleryana) that can serve as substitutes include:

  1. 'Aristocrat'
  2. 'Capital'
  3. 'New Bradford' 
  4. 'Redspire'
  5. 'Whitehouse'

Wilting Leaves on a Bradford Pear Tree

But let's say that you're stuck with a Bradford pear tree that you planted before finding out what a poor choice these specimens are. There are a few common care problems that you are likely to run up against. One of them is wilting leaves.

For example, let's say you've just planted a young Bradford pear, and your area is experiencing 30 MPH winds with gusts up to 40. The leaves of the tree are wilted and look dead. You tried to keep the ground damp but nothing has seemed to help. Is your tree all right? What can you do to help it recover?

It’s common for newly transplanted trees to experience transplant shock. Their disturbed roots find it difficult to nourish the leaves with sufficient water, as an established tree would be able to do. High winds simply exacerbate the problem; the result is leaf-wilt. The positive actions you can take to help the tree at this point, after the fact, are limited. But here’s what not to do: Don’t fertilize your struggling tree. Fertilizing would foster extra leaf growth that must be supported from down below (that is, the uptake of water and nutrients from the root system). You do not want this extra growth at this time, since the tree’s disturbed roots are already struggling to function properly. But do water your Bradford pear tree regularly — and play “the waiting game” to see how it pulls through.

Japanese Pear Rust

Scenario: You've never had a problem with your Bradford pear tree, but, all of a sudden, you spot a very bright orange fuzzy coating on the little pears one summer. This substance is falling on the lawn. It consists of little orange spikes that are coming right out of the fruits. You wonder, "Is it harmful to the lawn or to animals (squirrels, birds), etc.? What does it mean for the health of my tree? How can I care for it?" 

What you're observing is a kind of a "rust," which is a fungal disease. Specifically, it is most likely Japanese pear rust. Check with your county extension to see if they can recommend an anti-fungal spray for you. However, Japanese pear rust, while it’s a nuisance (the orange powder getting all over your car, etc.), is generally not something that is going to kill your plant. And it’s not supposed to be something that will keep occurring year after year. So it might be best to try just waiting it out for the rest of the growing season.

Fire Blight

Fire blight is another care problem that can come out of the blue. Let's say that you have recently trimmed some branches off your Bradford pears so that they wouldn't touch the house or stick out into the driveway. A few weeks later you start noticing branches falling off here and there, as well as leaves. From a distance, the trees themselves look healthy, otherwise. But if you look up into the tree closely, you do see, here and there, branches ready to fall because they are dead. But it’s just small branches at the end and not an entire limb. It's very sporadic. 

What may have happened is that you introduced a disease into your Bradford pear trees when you trimmed them (maybe because you failed to disinfect your pruners): namely, fire blight, which is a bacterial disease. 

One Tree Is Blooming, the Other Is Not. What's the Reason?

There are many possible reasons for Bradford pear trees not blooming. For example:

  1. The flower buds are sometimes damaged in cold winters.
  2. The trees may not have received sufficient water.
  3. Your soil could be deficient in nutrients (having a soil test done never hurts).

Nor should you put too much stock in the fact that one of the Bradford pear trees has bloomed: That one could simply have been a healthier specimen at the time of purchase, or the soil under it could be slightly different, or the other two could have sustained some sort of injury along the way (for example, at planting time).

The Leaves Are Turning Brown and Dropping Off. Am I Watering Properly?

Here's a common scenario. It's a hot July. You just planted a new Bradford pear tree two weeks back, and the leaves are now turning brown and eventually coming down. You wonder if this is due to over-watering, under-watering, or some other problem.

But, in this case, your watering of the Bradford pear tree may not be the biggest issue. The fact that you planted in summer probably has a lot more to do with the downfall of your plant. Spring would have been a much better time to plant, with fall being a close second. 

Watering schedules for young Bradford pear trees (or any plants, really) can only be rough, with an inch or two of irrigation per week being an example of such an approximation. But there are too many variables to provide a precise watering schedule or amount of irrigation (size of tree, soil drainage, weather, etc.). When Bradford pear trees are established and large, people generally give them a good watering once a week unless their region is undergoing a particularly hot, dry spell weather-wise. Twice a week is generally about right for young trees.

The Leaves on My Bradford Pear Are Turning Yellow. How Do I Care for My Tree?

If it is springtime or summertime and your tree's leaves are turning yellow, you have a problem. The issue may well lie in your soil. Have your soil tested (or do so, yourself, after purchasing a soil-testing kit at a home improvement store) to see if there is a nutrient deficiency. If the test results eliminate the possibility of a nutrient deficiency, the problem could still rest in the ground: It could be a matter of drainage, rather than nutrition.

Soils with a lot of clay hold water longer than do sandy soils. In such a soil, over-watering or too much rain can result in root rot. Roots drown, so to speak; they can't get oxygen and die. This death is reflected in the yellow leaves. If the whole tree is not dead, there may be time to work compost into the soil, thereby improving drainage and saving it. But this is a lot of work, and there are no guarantees of success. This may be a good time to remove the plant, improve the soil (now that you will have better access to it), and replace it with a better landscape tree.

How Do You Fertilize Bradford Pear Trees?

This query really breaks down into two different questions:

  1. What time of year do you fertilize them?
  2. What numbers (that is, percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) should you be looking for on the fertilizer bag, if, indeed, you opt for a commercial (chemical) fertilizer, at all?

Many gardeners are not huge believers in chemical fertilizers, preferring to fertilize with compost, instead. When they do use a chemical fertilizer, they tend to use half of what the directions say, to avoid burning the plant. An alternative is to use fertilizer spikes intended for flowering trees (read the directions on the package). If you use fertilizer spikes that have a complete fertilizer (the numbers on the bag would read something like "10-10-10") to feed Bradford pear trees, you don’t have to be fussy about timing the fertilizing, since they are slow-release fertilizers.

How Should You Prune Them?

Some gardeners, aware that a Bradford's limbs are susceptible to storm damage, contemplate pruning as a preventive measure. The plan here may work if you start early and remember to continue to implement the plan. But a severe pruning of older Bradford pear trees can be problematic, in terms of their appearance afterwards. It’s easier to prune younger Bradford pear trees and then keep after them. As they get older, their branches grow so large that pruning them off really tends to spoil the classic shape that’s such a big part of their beauty. If it's already too late (because you have mature trees), skip the severe pruning and just accept that, being Bradford pear trees, they probably will eventually succumb to damage. In the meantime, you could start some younger replacements somewhere else on the landscape.