Pear today, gone tomorrow

Sometimes a lame horse needs shooting.

The day of reckoning arrived last December for a row of ailing Bradford pear trees in downtown Asheville.

After watching last year’s winter weather decimate the trees, the First Baptist Church’s building-and-grounds committee decided to avoid a recurrence of the disaster by felling its 24 Bradford pears. For 20 years, the trees had grown on a narrow strip of earth between the church and Charlotte Street.

“It was either cut them down and start over, or watch the trees deteriorate this winter,” said First Baptist Pastor Ron Crawford, fondly recalling their “magnificent” white springtime blooms. The trees came down the week after Christmas.

First Baptist isn’t the only one uprooting Bradford pears, a variety of ornamental fruit tree popular with landscapers in the ’70s and early ’80s.

“Probably within the next five years, we will have replaced most of the Bradford pears on the public right of way,” says Director Susan Roderick of Quality Forward, a local nonprofit that works to beautify the area, partly through planting flowers and trees. “We’d like to keep them as long as we can, [but] they will become a hazard at some point,” says Roderick (who calls herself a “tree cheerleader”).

In the early ’80s, Quality Forward planted — or recommended planting — a whole slew of Bradford pears, including long lines of them along Biltmore and Asheland avenues.

“Everybody was planting them all over the country,” remembers Roderick, who says that, at the peak of the tree’s popularity, nurseries were reportedly selling them straight off the backs of delivery trucks.

But last summer, it was out with the old, when some of the Bradford pears along Biltmore Avenue got the axe and were replaced with honey locusts — sturdy, breezy trees that Roderick says better suit downtown storefronts.

What happened? Why are trees once so popular getting yanked out by their root balls?

A Bradford pear tree can grow to about 50 feet, says Jerry Snow, the landscape architect who came up with First Baptist’s replanting plan. The problem with the tree is that its main trunk stops at about four feet, at which point it splits into numerous nearly vertical subsidiary limbs, explains Snow, causing a condition known as “tight crotch.”

In high winds or heavy ice and snow, those branches have a tendency to snap off, right at the main trunk.

Walk down Asheland Avenue, and you can see for yourself: scarred trees missing limbs.

“I try to discourage clients from planting them,” says Snow, who agrees with Roderick and Crawford that, in bloom, the trees are lovely. He also remembers Bradford pears dropping their limbs onto parked cars in Athens, Ga., where he went to school. Those trees are gone now, he says.

Soon — maybe even by the time you read this — First Baptist will replant the stretch of land where its Bradford pears once grew, replacing them with 14-foot red maples and willow oaks, says Snow.

“Hopefully,” says Crawford, “in two or three years, that side of the building will be a great source of pride for all of us.”

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