The Buzz

The stinky scourge of suburbia: Bradford pear trees

Bradford pear tree. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Spring has many pleasant smells associated with it — rain, freshly cut grass and blooming flowers to name just a few — but that less-than-pleasant odor wafting in the air right now may be coming from a tree in your backyard or neighborhood.

Bradford pear trees are in full bloom now, revealing a canopy of beautiful white blooms but also emitting a stench that's often compared to rotting fish, NPR reports. The smell lingers for as long as the white flowers do, making it unpleasant to be anywhere near the trees until the blooms finally fall to the ground.

Bradford pears, a cultivar of the Callery pear tree, are commonplace across most of the eastern United States. Native to China and Vietnam, they were introduced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1960s as an ornamental landscape tree, and they quickly took off in popularity because they are affordable and easy to grow and also can be transported easily, USA Today reports.  

Their popularity has given root to the rotting fish smell that permeates the air in many places at this time of year. They were often planted in large numbers, row after row, along city streets and parkways as well as in our own backyards.

That fetid smell serves a purpose, though, and it's the same purpose that sweet-smelling flowers serve. Any smell emitted by a plant is to attract pollinators, which is what the Bradford pear is doing with its awful smell.

"We normally associate sweet smells with trying to attract bees, but a lot of plants all over the world use really terrible smells in order to attract beetles and flies as pollinators," John Murgel, a horticulturalist at the Denver Botanic Gardens, told Denver's Westword

The rotting stink the trees emit is just one problem with them. They're also relatively short lived and have a very weak branch structure that makes them susceptible to damage from wind and storms. And worst of all is that they have invasive qualities that can allow them to spread quickly and overtake landscapes. 

The Morton Arboretum classifies the Callery pear tree as not recommended. It said the tree has invasive traits that allow it to aggressively spread, and it is under observation and may be listed as an invasive species in the future.  

Between their invasive tendencies and propensity to become damaged in storms, some cities have taken a firm stand against Bradford pear trees. In Champaign, the trees cannot be planted in city rights-of-way, the University of Illinois Extension reports. Pittsburgh has banned them in the Pittsburgh Urban Forest Master Plan, and the state of Pennsylvania is phasing in a ban on the sale or cultivation of the tree. The South Carolina Forestry Commission implores its residents not to plant the trees and instead plant trees native to the area and will ban the trees outright beginning in October 2024.

Clemson University, in South Carolina, has taken its position against planting these trees one step further. The university's Cooperative Extension has for several years offered the Bradford Pear Bounty, encouraging South Carolina property owners to exchange up to five Bradford pear trees for an equal number of free native trees.

Choosing native trees and plants for your yard is better because these plants are acclimated to the climate and soil conditions and, therefore, are more likely to thrive, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Native plants and trees also require less maintenance and upkeep and provide a healthy habitat for the wildlife in our area.

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