Recently our social media feeds have been full of beautiful photos of flowering plants that signal spring is on the way, much to the joy of the poster. Many of these pictures show gorgeous, blooming white trees throughout Virginia’s state forests, marching down nearby HOA streets or sprinkled throughout our local parks. Sadly, in the current vernacular, once we know their true nature, we can never unsee or ignore the negative side of these weeds.
These demon spreaders are Callery pears or Pyrus calleryana (often called Bradford pears, but there are many other hybrids), once the darling of suburban landscapers. The trees were bred to tolerate poor soils, to over-bloom, to be short enough to avoid interference with overhead electric transmission wires, and supposedly not to seed at all. It was a failed human intervention—this hybridized tree bypassed the non-seeding attempt and shoots its seed far and wide. Today these invasives bloom everywhere, particularly on forest edges that are visible from highways and streets. Where Callery pears grow, no native trees, understory shrubs or ground covers can flourish. Entire ecological networks in our rural and suburban areas are being “peared” to death, and as a result, many states have banned their sale. Unfortunately, Virginia is not one of them.
The Callery pear invasion is a costly and complex problem to correct. On larger properties, a wholistic approach is best—get rid of all trees at one time. Take the Town of Vienna, for example. An anonymous donor contributed $20,000 to the city to remove 27 Callery pears in the median along Nutley Street SW, from I-66 to Rt. 123, and replace them with several native species. The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of the spring 2023 planting season.
For individual homeowner properties, Blue Ridge Prism has an Invasive Species Management handout with everything we need to know about removing this noxious weed tree from our yards. Because application of herbicide is involved, it may be best for an individual homeowner to call in expert help - strict personal care and training are a must for foliar spraying. Once the noxious weed trees are eliminated, replanting with similar sized flowering options is possible. There are several excellent resources offering choices that will brighten our yards, enhance local ecosystems and provide the visual spring awakenings we all seek. Consider native options such as plums, fringe trees or crabapples. The best information can be found at Plant Nova Natives and Plant Nova Trees.
Now that we cannot unsee the ecological disaster of the Callery pear, what can we do to prevent the complete takeover of our rural and urban forests? Banning the sale of invasive non-native weeds is one option, and in Virginia, that would require enabling legislation from our General Assembly. Another option would be to provide grants to homeowners for removal and replanting with natives. If we all work together, in a few years we can flood our social media with the beautiful blossoms of native Virginia trees!
Chair, Fairfax County Tree Commission