A flaw lies beneath the crown of white
Trees: The lovely Bradford pear, welcomed into suburbs in the '60s, has grown to be a neighborhood hazard.

Erin Texeira

Published on Sunday, August 17, 1997
© 1997 The Baltimore Sun

The Bradford pear was born between the baby boomers and Generation X and reared in the suburbs. Now middle age is hitting with a vengeance.

This lovely, low-maintenance tree, created by government arborists in the early 1960s, is known for the shock of white blossoms that coat its limbs in the spring.

But, as it ages, the Bradford is also becoming known for something else.

``They can fall apart at any time,'' said Bob Rouse, staff arborist for the National Arborist Association. ``You never can be sure. It's not dangerous unless someone happens to be walking under it when one of the branches fails.''

That's what Jane Kerner of Laurel was doing March 29.

On a cool spring afternoon, the 64-year-old retired government secretary was walking on a street lined with Bradfords when a sudden wind picked up and a 30-foot tree crushed her.

``I was yelling and crying and moaning,'' she says. ``Praying out loud to God. I could hear them saying, 'We've got to get this tree off her.' ''

It took 10 people to lift the tree. By then, Kerner was mauled: broken pelvis, ribs, clavicle. Shattered ankle. Punctured lung. Two months in the hospital -- most in intensive care -- and months of physical therapy later, she can barely walk.

This was not what scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Introduction Station in Glenn Dale had in mind as they worked during the 1950s developing -- or selecting, as tree people say -- the Bradford.

It was introduced to the public in 1963 and proved as popular as that year's other newcomer -- the Beatles.

A fast-growing shade tree, the Bradford seemed perfect for the country's rapidly spreading suburban developments. Bradford pears were planted by the tens of thousands throughout the mid-Atlantic, South and Midwest, tree experts say.

They resisted most pests, provided great shade, turned crimson in fall and could adjust to just about any climate.

Streets in places such as Columbia are lined with them. In older cities -- such as Baltimore -- they were put in as roads were improved and widened.

Now you can find Bradford pears -- and the problems they are starting to cause -- everywhere, from St. John's Lane in Ellicott City to Reisterstown Road in Pikesville to Charles Street in Baltimore.

``At the time it came out, the Bradford pear was very new, very exciting,'' said Georgia Eacker, a master gardener at the Howard County Cooperative Extension Service. ``People just planted them wholesale.''

Many of the trees planted in a euphoric landscaping rush -- ``People thought they had found the perfect tree,'' said one landscape architect -- have reached maturity. The older they get, the more they fall apart, wreaking havoc with city and private gardens, obstructing roads and keeping tree specialists busy answering emergency calls.

``I wish I had a dollar for every Bradford pear I've taken down in the last 15 years,'' said Matt Anacker, owner of A & A Tree Experts in Pikesville.

Frank Santamour, head of tree research at the U.S. National Arboretum and one of the scientists who helped introduce the Bradford in the 1960s, has fond memories of those early trees.

``It looked like a lollipop -- its form was absolutely lovely,'' he said.

``It looks great even when it's young because all the branches come from the same place,'' he said. ``And that's the rub with this tree.''

Trees with staggered branches evenly distribute their weight along the trunk. But that's not the case with the Bradfords. As the branches grow out from the top of the trunk, stress increases on that point. During their 25-year life span, the trees can grow as high as 50 feet. Eventually, many split under the weight of the branches.

If the branches are thinned when the trees are young, the problem can often be prevented, said arborist Rouse.

But no one knew a problem existed until about 15 years ago, he said. Word spread slowly.

``We had absolutely no problems until last fall,'' said Peggy Crowley of Baltimore who has two Bradfords about 17 years old. ``In about a three-week period, we had three huge branches down. The next one will probably come down on my patio.''

She plans to have the trees removed this winter.

Serious injuries from falling Bradfords appear to be unusual. But after Kerner was struck, a friend in Columbia said a falling Bradford had broken his ankle and a disc in his back, while another friend reported that a pear tree had totaled a car beneath it.

Kerner's lawyer, Allan W. Steinhorn, is trying to figure out who may be liable for her injuries.

But when asked who is to blame for the Bradford problem, tree experts shrug. When trees are engineered in labs and introduced to the public with little testing, such problems are bound to arise, they say.

``This tree came out with very little clone testing,'' Santamour said. ``They knew they could propagate it, and they did it, and off it went.''

Today, many tree experts refuse to recommend Bradfords, which some call ``temporary trees'' because they often become unhealthy after about a decade or so.

In many public areas, tree experts now avoid planting them. Several dozen were ordered to be removed from a park in Atlanta last year.

In Baltimore, they have not been planted for at least a decade, said Jim Dicker, the city's head arborist, whose crews remove about 100 Bradfords a year and repair as many as 200 more.

Even so, some private homeowners still yearn for those white blossoms, so some nurseries provide them. And this promises to create Bradford problems for many years to come, Dicker said.

``Any time you have a big storm, you can pretty much predict you're going to get a call on the Bradford pear,'' he said. ``The pagers go off at 2 a.m. and it's like, 'Here we go again.' ''

Pub Date: 8/17/97

BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR: SUN STAFF A growing problem: A Bradford pear tree towers over Jane Kerner as she walks in Laurel. Kerner was injured this spring when a 30-foot Bradford fell on her. The popular trees can fall apart from their own weight. EMILY HOLMES: SUN STAFF How the branches compare

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