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What's That Smell? It's the Dreaded Bradford Pear

Bradford pear, smelly
The Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) is a beautiful, but invasive and highly destructive species, first introduced into the American landscape by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1960. Arthur Tilley/Getty Images

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If the Bradford pear tree were a celebrity, it would no doubt be looking for a new publicist.

It's pretty to look at, with its springtime blooms of puffy white flowers contrasted by crimson fall colors. And it was once the darling of subdivision planners across America. But it turns out the tree has a whole canopy of flaws (some of them sexual in nature) that are driving its reputation — sorry for the extra metaphor here — straight into the ground.

Among them: its brittle build, its selfish ways, its poor self-care and — let's be honest here — the fact that it's awfully promiscuous. Also, and this is a flora-specific flaw: It's not even from here!

According to The Washington Post, the tree is a "nightmare," "an environmental time bomb," and "an ecological marauder destined to continue its spread for decades." The New York Times simply calls it, "the most despised tree."

And that's not even talking about the tree's smell, which most people in the world (except for, admittedly, this writer) find offensive. Haters, trolls and straight-up journalists say it smells like, like, like, "semen and rotting flesh," according to The Times. Or, like, "the private booths at an adult theater," according to someone on Reddit.

Or, like, "slightly rotted fish." The last description is courtesy of Alex Beasley, the donor and public relations manager for Trees Atlanta, a nonprofit in the Georgia capital city with a mission to "protect and improve Atlanta's urban forest."

Even he doesn't like the Bradford pear.

"I have never personally heard anybody mention this tree scent as pleasant," Beasley says. "I think it's awful."

Wait, Aren't Trees Good?

OK, OK, so the tree smells. But it's a tree. It gives us oxygen. In this dire world of obvious climate change — extreme storms, drought and countless associated maladies — don't we need all the trees we can get? Don't we need more tree huggers, and fewer tree haters?

Well, yes, say Beasley (who is also a landscape architect) and countless other arborists and environmentalists. But the issues with the Bradford pear are motley and manifold.

Its top offenses, aside from the smell, are that it's invasive to the United States. A version of it, the Callery pear, was brought over from Chinato the Northwest U.S. in the early 20th century, in an effort led in part by botanist David Fairchild, who is known as "the guy who helped bring the Japanese cherry blossoms" to Washington, D.C.

The Callery was thought to be resistant to fire blight, a serious bacterial disease that affects other pear trees. The idea was to use the Callery "as a rootstock onto which varieties of the European pear could be grafted."

Fast-forward to 1960: Tree scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Glenn Dale, Maryland, released the Bradford pear — a cultivar of the Callery — to the public. It didn't matter that it was pear-less, despite its name. "People went bonkers," in a good way, The New York Times noted.

The tree seemed perfect for suburban America: a nice, neat canopy shape; not too big; seemingly hardy and showy colors in spring and fall. It became commonplace in the U.S., from north to south, east to west.

"Much like a crape myrtle is today, for a time this was the hot tree for contractors and home builders to plant," says Beasley. "It was easily sourced, fast-growing ... and virtually indestructible." All was well in the world.

And then it was not.

Here to Stay?

Through the years and decades, problems with this pear tree emerged. The smell was one thing. But upon maturity, Bradford pears and their V-crotch of branches become structurally weak. "We've been cleaning up its storm damage" ever since, Beasley says.

Once the tree put down its roots in North America, however, it wasn't going anywhere — in part, because it so easily propagates. Six months after blooming, the Bradford offers clusters of seedy berries to birds, who then fly away, poop out the seeds and spread the tree to new forests.

Further, the Bradford pears are greedy, tree experts say. Their roots soak up water so well, they have been known to negatively affect plants and trees around them.

"If only people knew that when they plant one of these trees, they've possibly planted a hundred others, which have the power to ravage a forest's trees, which countless numbers of wildlife depend on," Beasley says.

Is It Too Late to Complain?

The tree's invasive qualities certainly stand out, it cannot be denied. But, for a devil's advocate perspective, let's consider a counterpoint: The world is now filled with invasive species, thanks largely to what some argue is the most invasive species of all: us, Homo sapiens. As we have conquered the globe, we have helped spread untold numbers of plant and animal life, which have decimated untold numbers of previously "native" species around the world.

With that in mind, does there come a time when "invasiveness" just becomes "reality"?

Beasley answers unequivocally: The fight is still on.

"Never replant with an invasive species," he says. "This is about as bad as intentionally planting English ivy in your yard. You're dooming your neighbors for generations.

"When there is an opportunity to replant to help mend past damages to our urban forest, why not take it?" he asks. "Trade out crape myrtle for a native hornbeam. Trade out Leyland cypress for eastern red cedar. Trade out a Bradford pear for an oak.

"I just do not know how it's legal to sell plants that we know are invasive," he continues. "[Ban them] for the same reason you can no longer smoke on airplanes — it adversely affects others. How can we buy a plant that is so destructive to our forests and causes millions (if not billions) in tax dollar remediation?"

Until then, what to do?

It's spring. The Bradford pears are blooming. The next time you pass one, take a deep breath. If you don't like the smell, hold your nose, and perhaps complain about it online. And daydream.

"If I only had a DeLorean," Beasley says, referencing the time-traveling automobile in the "Back to the Future" movie franchise. "Yes, I'd wipe this tree from the American landscape."

Strong words. But not out of line with popular opinion. While it was briefly a celebrated member of the U.S. flora landscape, to be a Bradford pear tree these days really stinks.

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