Bringing the Bradford pear tree to Maine seemed like a good idea at the time.
Fast growing with early spring blooms of white flowers, the tree, also called callery pear, is a popular ornamental in the state. But it’s also an invasive species that smells incredibly bad and if it gets a foothold in Maine’s natural landscape, could have a devastating effect on native species.
That’s what is happening right now in the southern United States. It’s gotten so bad in South Carolina that officials there are planning to outlaw the sale and purchase of the tree by 2024 and offering a bounty to eradicate existing trees.
The situation is not that serious in Maine, yet, according to officials who are keeping a close eye on the species here.
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“There is plenty of it planted here in Maine,” according to Gary Fish, state horticulturist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “There are reports of it escaping and a report out of Portland five years ago indicated it had been found in some natural areas there.”
Fish and his colleagues are currently working on the five-year update to the terrestrial invasive plant “do not sell” list, and he said the Bradford pear is on it. It is also currently on the list of plants considered to be very invasive in Maine.
The tree was imported from several Asian countries to the United States in the early 1900s. By the 1960s it became the ubiquitous ornamental tree planted by developers in growing suburbs.
“People planted it because of those early white blooms,” Fish said. “What they did not realize is that those blossoms smell horrible.”
The smell of a grove of Bradford pear trees in full blossom has been compared to rotting fish.
“That smell is really hard to describe,” Fish said. “It’s not like crab apples or lilacs — it’s pretty rank.”
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That odor is the least of the problems when it comes to the Bradford pear.
“It has a lot of negatives,” Fish said. “As close as Connecticut where it has escaped, it is really taking over sites that are cleared and will compete with things like paper bird, aspen or cherries.”
The pear can easily outcompete and eliminate native species from the landscape, Fish said.
It’s also structurally weak, making it unable to support heavy snow or ice loads. That means falling trees and breaking branches, which pose a danger to people and property.
Because it is non-native to the area, the tree provides no food for native insects, birds or wildlife. All those blossoms are unusable by native pollinators.
Fish has spoken to his colleagues in New Hampshire where the Bradford pear has been found in the natural landscape.
“It’s a story that is repeated over and over,” Fish said. “Plants that are easy to produce become popular and because they are so easy to produce and well priced, builders and architects decide to start incorporating them into subdivisions and other places of new housing.”
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Fish said horticulturists and Maine tree experts can be consulted for advice on good native ornamentals to plant instead of the Bradford pear tree.
As potentially dangerous to Maine’s native plants as the pear tree is, Fish does not see the state issuing bounties or undertaking dramatic eradication measures beyond including it on the upcoming do not sell list due out early next year.
“If people have one and are concerned about its potential for escaping and causing problems to the Maine ecosystem they can remove it,” Fish said. “But we are not going to tell people they have to.”
Correction: A previous version of this report misspelled Gary Fish’s name.