Fayette County

The beautiful flowering pear trees are taking over, literally

A flowering pear tree in full bloom on Emerson Woods in Lexington, Ky., Monday, March 28, 2016.
A flowering pear tree in full bloom on Emerson Woods in Lexington, Ky., Monday, March 28, 2016. cbertram@herald-leader.com

That line of pear trees in the Palomar neighborhood in south Lexington is gorgeous, fluffy and decked out like clouds descended to suburban Earth.

The problem is that pear trees are also invasive. And they’re growing all over Central Kentucky. Their fruit, tasty to birds, winds up distributed across Kentucky fields, where it joins other invasive species such as honeysuckle and winter creeper in crowding out the region’s native plants and trees.

“We’ve got a big problem on our hands with how invasive they’re becoming,” said Tim Queary, Lexington’s urban forester. “It’s an alien. It shouldn’t be here. ... The thing that’s bad about them is they’re outcompeting native species.”

Flowering pear trees that go by various names: Bradford, Callery, Cleveland Select. But most tree experts agree that a flowering pear tree by any name is a bad idea. The cultivars interbreed and create an invasive wild population of hybrid Callery pear trees.

Tom Kimmerer, chief scientist at Venerable Trees, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of woodland pastures and ancient trees in the Bluegrass, put it even more bluntly: “We have to stop planting Callery pears. ... By the time we say, ‘We’d better do something about this, it’s too late. We keep introducing new organisms into our environment, and then too late we say, ‘Oh, that wasn’t a good idea.’”

Motorists can find the naturalized trees around country roads and areas that aren’t routinely mowed. You’ll see them in retention and detention basins, around Lexington’s Man o’ War Boulevard and on the Nicholasville bypass.

Most local nurseries don’t sell pear trees, Queary said, but the big-box stores stock the trees. They’re usually inexpensive and they grow quickly.

South Carolina nurseryman Durant Ashmore posted an extended rant titled Curse of the Bradford Pear in the Greenville News in March, and it promptly went viral on Facebook. To say that Ashmore despises the trees is a little bit of an understatement.

He leads off with this zinger: “All those white blooming trees you see now are an environmental disaster happening right before your very eyes.”

Ashmore wrote that Callery pears have four-inch thorns that can’t be mowed down and can be removed only by steel-tracked bulldozers: “And make no mistake about this. That solitary Bradford pear growing in your yard is what caused this problem. Your one tree has spawned hundreds of evil progeny.”

All varieties of ornamental pear trees are equally bad, Ashmore said. He concluded: “Save the world. Eliminate Bradford pear trees.”

Invasive species such as flowering pear trees and honeysuckle yield a lesson, Kimmerer said: “We should be paying more attention to potentially invasive species down the road.”

The solution, he said, is simple: Plant native species.

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

Good trees, bad trees

Lexington’s Urban County government has a list of recommended street trees and trees that are prohibited, which includes all flowering pears. Go to: http://bit.ly/1VTBrSS

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader