Sunday, March 11, 2012

White Blooming Roadside Trees

This is the time of year that drives native plant folks crazy.  Roadsides and vacant spaces throughout Georgia are displaying upright trees with puffy white blooms.  People sigh and say "Oh, those trees are so pretty."  Before the top of my head explodes, I am compelled to burst out "Those are not native, and they shouldn't be there!"

Pyrus calleryana
James H. Miller, USDA Forest Service

People are actually not surprised to find out that those trees are ornamental pears: Pyrus calleryana.  They look just like the ones sold in the store.  But people are surprised to find out how they got there.  The answer is cross-pollination.

Ornamental pears like 'Bradford' are sterile because they are self-incompatible.  This cultivar will not produce fruit by itself.  For many years, people planted 'Bradford' pears and none of them had fruit.  Then the trees began to split and break.  Nurserymen decided to find another tree with a better growth habit.  New cultivars began to appear in the stores: 'Aristocrat' and 'Cleveland Select' (also known as 'Chanticleer') were two of the early ones. When these new cultivars were planted near the old  'Bradford' trees, cross-pollination began to occur.  All the trees which were sterile with their OWN pollen now had a source of compatible pollen and began to produce fruits.

Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgia,

Birds, especially European starlings, ate some of the fruit and spread it to new areas.  The seeds sprouted and grew.  While the upright form of the parent was passed along to the seedlings, so was another trait that the carefully bred parent didn't have: thorns.  Roadsides and vacant lots became the new home of these thorny invaders, their rapid growth and dense canopy shading out other plants, especially in the southeastern U.S. which shares the same climate as their  native range.

There are many scientific reasons while this plant has become a successful invader - for more in depth details, read the third reference listed below (Culley and Hardiman).  This plant is one of the most noticeable invaders of this decade - an infestation unfolding right in front of us.

Good references for this cross-pollination story include the following:

'Bradford Callery Pear (and other cultivars) Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’ ' by Alex Niemiera
'The beginning of a new invasive plant: A history of the ornamental callery pear in the United States' by Theresa Culley and Nicole Hardiman

So if you are thinking about planting this tree, please don't. Research other trees, preferably native, for your area.  And if you have this tree, please consider removing it.  Especially if you notice it setting fruits.

David J. Moorhead, University of Georgia,

On a positive note, native redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are blooming now.  Their slender branches with tiny purple flowers are peeking out on sunny roadsides, usually from behind something else.  In full sun, they have a more spreading shape.  Their heart-shaped leaves are easily recognized.

P. S. That is not to say that native white trees won't be blooming soon - they will!  I look forward to seeing the blooms of serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) very soon as well as black cherry (Prunus serotina) and the native plums (also Prunus). But none of those will have the stick-straight silhouette of the ornamental pear volunteers.

Redbud, Cercis canadensis, on the side of the road


  1. I had always wondered why some ornamental Pears were producing "fruit", now I know- thanks! Fortunately, our city recently realized they were spending too much money cleaning up roadside plantings of damaged Pears from storms and began replacing them with Serviceberries and Crepe Myrtles.

  2. Great info about the pears. It is not yet a major problem here as it is in the east. Those links are very helpful, thanks.

  3. Ellen, I've just recently discovered your blog at Blotanical, and I'm enjoying it very much. It is surprising how many of the plants you feature also grow in Maine, where I garden. I do a monthly "blog of the month" feature on my blog, Jean's Garden, where I review and recommend newly discovered blogs that I think my readers would enjoy. Yours is one of three that I am highlighting this month. My post reviewing your blog just went up and your blog will be featured on my sidebar throughout the month. -Jean

  4. Dang if you ain't the Prophet of Doom once again! I was too short on time to get to the trails yesterday so I did a road run. Saw these well formed white early blooming trees hither and yon. Asked Julie about them. "Read Ellen's Blog". Another moment of childlike curiosity and wonder bashed to heck on Non-Native Invasive rocks.

  5. Ornamental pears are planted next to roads here in Michigan. I prefer the higgly piggly growing patterns of redbuds

  6. You have such a turn of phrase, Jeff! Ellen--great post. The best laid plans....

  7. similar to how if those pretty cultivars of purple loosestrife are grown in isolation, they don't set seed, but once you or you and a neighbor have a couple different ones, and it is the habit of the plant collector to do so, you start to get tens of thousands of seeds. yet some nurseries still sell it . . .

  8. There r trees blooming now with purple flowers what kind of tree are they?

    1. In Georgia? They might be Paulownia trees.