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Bradford pears are pretty but don't hold up to storms

Blooming Bradford pear trees line East King Street in Strasburg in April 2011. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Gary Dawson uses a chainsaw to cut the remains of a Bradford pear tree in his front yard on Lambert Lane in the Hope Valley subdivision of Toms Brook in Oct. 2011. The snow forced many Bradford pear trees to the ground. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Bradford pear trees have a habit of cracking under the stress of heavy snow as in this home on Dickerson Lane in Strasburg in 2011. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Randy Fogle, one of the owners of Fort Valley Nursery in Woodstock, talks about Bradford pear trees recently. Sam Taff/Daily Correspondent

By Sam Taff
Daily correspondent

Residents of the Northern Shenandoah Valley won't soon forget the derecho that stormed through the area on June 29 last year.

In its path it left thousands without power as trees fell victim to the wind. The cleanup took weeks and some homeowners are taking this spring season to replace trees in their yard lost last summer.

While some trees can weather the worst Mother Nature throws at them, others, like the Bradford pear, cower at the slightest gust of wind.

The Bradford pear is an ornamental tree commercially developed in the 1960's, said Randy Fogle, one of the owners of Fort Valley Nursery in Woodstock.

"It was a popular tree because of its prolific flowers, few pest problems and pretty fall colors," he said.

"It was a perfect tree, until about 10 to 15 years into its life you find that it doesn't hold up well to wind, snow and ice," Fogle added.

Its compact and fast growth made it the perfect tree for many small towns to plant along streets and in small planter boxes. The trees gave streets a beautiful welcoming color with bright white flowers at the onset of the first warm days of spring and vibrant, rich red leaves in the cool air of fall.

Branches on the Bradford variety grow straight up from the base. This makes it susceptible during strong down drafts from storm gusts. It also doesn't hold up well to the extra weight of snow or ice.

The branches grow close together, giving the tree the same characteristics of an umbrella in the wind. Eventually the branches break, and in some instances, the tree can split in half.

In a matter of moments that beautiful tree in the front yard can turn into mulch at the local landfill.

For homeowners who still have Bradfords in their yards, it's important to keep them pruned and thinned.

Thinning the branches regularly gives wind an avenue through the tree to avoid destruction. However no matter how much trimming a homeowner does, the tree remains vulnerable to wind and, in some instances, itself.

The trees have a habit of "ingrown" bark, which weakens the tree and has been known to cause it to split -- even without Mother Nature's wrath.

Towns that used Bradford pears as decorations at one point are now replacing them with heartier varieties.

"We don't sell them here anymore. We have improved varieties that have superior branch habits," Fogle said.

Fort Valley Nursery offers two alternatives, the Cleveland Select and the Springshow, which have superior "crotching" of the branches, as Fogle explained. Branches on the Bradford grow straight up while the Springshow grows out, making a stronger cross pattern through the tree.

"They still can get wind damage, but not as frequently," Fogle said.

Homeowners who fell in love with the Bradford pears' color will see little difference if they switch to stronger varieties.

"They cost the same, there is no difference," Fogle said.

That is great news but the work doesn't stop there; pruning is still necessary to keep new strains from snapping in the next windstorm.

Despite their problems, ornamental pear varieties will remain popular among homeowners because the trees are drought resistant and can grow in most soil conditions.


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