How to Treat Leaf Wilt on Bradford Pear Trees

Bradford pear trees snap in storms. But as seen in this picture, they are, admittedly, pretty.
Bradford pear trees can form a beautiful display in spring but are stinky and brittle. David Beaulieu

A reader wrote in about newly planted Bradford pear trees, saying that they had borne the brunt of high winds for a couple of days. The Bradford pears on the property developed brown leaves; they suffered from leaf wilt and looked dead, despite the homeowner's keeping the ground damp. So what, if anything, can be done in cases like this? 

Leaf Wilt Causes

Bradford pears and other trees that have just been transplanted experience transplant shock in a great many cases. Their roots have been disrupted, and they can be quick to show their displeasure. If someone picked you up, carried you out of your home and plopped you down on a strange property, you probably would be none too happy, either.

In its state of shock, the damaged Bradford pear tree's roots can't send water up to the leaves as they normally would. Pounding winds make matters worse. One result can be leaf wilt. Other plant problems can be caused by these conditions, as well, on deciduous trees. The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service lists some of them:

  1. Leaf scorch.
  2. Yellowing of the leaves.
  3. Leaf rolling.
  4. Curling of the leaves.

Purdue observes that, at its onset, leaf scorch is indicated by the coloration of the "tissue between the veins or along the margins of leaves" becoming yellow, and that, as the problem progresses, this tissue becomes dry, resulting in a brown color.

Leaf Wilt Treatment for Bradford Pear Trees

What can you do to revive Bradford pear trees that have fallen prey to leaf wilt? Sadly, there is not much at this stage of the game that you can do. This is a case where prevention before the fact is more effective than treatment after the fact. For future reference, windbreaks could have minimized wilt damage, but it is rather late for that once the wilting has taken place.

One should, however, emphasize what not to do: Do not fertilize. By feeding the plants, you would be encouraging additional leaf growth. That is not something that you want at this point. The root system can't support the canopy as it is, as said above; so there is no sense in adding to its burden.

Provide the Bradford pear trees with irrigation regularly. Other than that, all you can do is exercise patience and see if they revive from their transplant shock and subsequent leaf wilt.

Transplant Shock and "Bare-Root" Plants

As the same Purdue source points out, "Bare root trees and shrubs are most susceptible to transplant shock. Such 'stressed' plants are very fragile and are more susceptible to other stress factors." If you are used to buying plants at garden centers growing in flats or pots (or balled-and-burlapped, in the case of trees), then that terminology, "bare-root" might leave you scratching your head. But the definition of this term is surprisingly straightforward:

Bare-root plants are shipped with no soil "clothing" their roots. When you buy shrubs at the garden center, they may well come in containers, but when you order them from garden catalogs, they will often arrive as bare-root plants.

You may wonder if shipping a plant with no soil on its roots is harmful to the plant. The fact is, not just any plant can be shipped bare-root. But certain plants—for example, rose bushes—can survive this method of transport in a sort of dormancy. But do not push your luck! Planting bare-root plants as soon as possible after they have arrived by mail is recommended. And if you cannot plant immediately, at least place the roots in water.

As faithful as you might be in following these instructions, though, there is simply a lot that can go wrong when installing new plants—whether it be bare-root or not. One of the "stress factors" cited by Purdue is drainage problems. To improve the chances that your new Bradford pear tree (or other plant) will survive and thrive, ensure that the soil under and around your plant's roots drains well, so that water won't collect and rot the roots.