College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences; Public Service and Agriculture

Clemson Extension event doles out free trees, dirt on Bradford pears


 All Clemson University events have been suspended until April 5. Events scheduled for April 6 and beyond will continue to be evaluated, and any changes will be communicated as soon as decisions are made. 

Clemson Extension partnered to give away over 260 healthy native trees to replace invasive Bradford pears in the City of Clemson, but the hope is that the seeds of information sown at the event will prove to be equally fruitful.

Tony bags a tree.
City of Clemson horticulturist Tony Tidwell, right, bags a replacement tree for a local resident during the Bradford Pear Bounty event on Feb. 29 at Nettles Park in Clemson.

“I think this can communicate a lot with nurserymen that they need to quit selling this tree and people need to quit buying it,” City of Clemson Horticulturist Tony Tidwell said. “But they’re going to keep selling it if people keep buying it. Nurseries are in business to sell, and if something catches on it really doesn’t matter in a way if it’s causing ill effects where they’re being planted.”

And those ill effects were the impetus for the Bradford Pear Bounty, sponsored by Clemson Extension, the City of Clemson and the S.C. Forestry Commission, on Feb. 29 at Nettles Park, aimed not only at giving away trees but also sharing a message.

Invasive species refers to plants that are not native to an area — in the Bradford pear’s case, neither South Carolina nor North America — and rapidly establish themselves, crowding out native species along the way and wreaking havoc, either economically or ecologically … or both.

Clemson area property owners were encouraged to exchange up to five Bradford pear trees for an equal number of free, healthy, native, young replacement trees.

If the turnout was any indication, that message was heard loud and clear. The event began at 9 o’clock in the morning, and people were waiting for their trees as early as 7:45. In total over 250 trees were given away.

Trees sit in pots.
The Bradford Pear Bounty event began at 9 o’clock in the morning, and people were waiting for their trees as early as 7:45. In total over 250 trees were given away.

While Bradford pear by itself is sterile, when it gets crosspollinated by other Pyrus species — most infamously, the non-native Callery pear — is when the real problems start, as viable seeds are eaten by birds and spread across the southeastern landscape.

“That’s why you see Callery pears all over roadsides, old fields, ditches, interstates, everywhere,” said David Coyle, Extension forest health and invasive species specialist. “Once a Callery pear gets there, they grow in really dense thickets and crowd out everything else, and you get these pure Callery patches.”

And not only do Callery pears have nasty thorns — typically anywhere from quarter-inch stubs to three-inch spikes — that can cause damage to everything from tractor tires to livestock, the damage they do to the ecosystem is just as bad.

“From an ecological perspective, they crowd out all our native plants, and very few insects eat Callery pear,” Coyle said. “So if you like birds, remember that a lot of birds need caterpillars to feed their young, and everywhere you see a Callery pear, it’s basically a food desert in terms of insects for a bird to eat. If that bird is looking for food, it’s not going to find it there.”

The Bradford pear is a cultivar, or a plant variety, produced by grafting, and is a Callery pear that was originally thornless but had red fall coloring and white blossoms in the spring. For those reasons, Bradford pear became a hugely popular tree for ornamental reasons near the end of the last century and have been widely planted in the Upstate for years.

“Bradford pear is very prone to storm damage because of the sharp-angled forks in the branches, so it creates a lot of maintenance for landowners when they do have them,” S.C. Forestry Commission Piedmont Urban Forester Dena Whitesides said. “There’s also a pungent smell to them, and they cross-breed with other pears — the non-native Callery pears — so they’re entering our forests. They’re invading our forests, so they’re taking up space for the native trees and shrubs that should be in our forests; they’re displacing natives.

People talk near a table.
Clemson Extension employees David Coyle (back left) and Walker Massey (right) help Clemson area residents during the Bradford Pear Bounty program on Feb. 29 at Nettles Park.

“So, it’s double-sided: there’s the threat to our South Carolina forests and the native plants, and then there’s the threat to the urban landscape with it spreading and then creating more costs and maintenance for landowners.”

Whitesides admitted there is much work ahead in raising awareness about the importance of reducing invasive species in the landscape and championing native species in South Carolina, but she said the Bradford Pear Bounty program is a testament to what is possible.

“Clemson University has a large presence in the state, as does the Forestry Commission, and we both have education at the forefront of our missions,” Whitesides said. “We have good ways to reach people with our social media and our websites, communications teams, so it’s a great partnership, and Dave and I have already talked about mobilizing this program and taking it on the road to different smaller communities and some large cities in South Carolina.”

But while the Bradford’s invasive characteristics have led to thickets of Callery pears popping up across the southeastern landscape, the Bradford Pear Bounty aims not only to help reverse that trend over the long haul but also to make a more immediate impact on the city of Clemson.

“Today is to raise goodwill. We’re giving away trees,” Tidwell said. “People are going to add to the canopy. In a rapidly developing place like Clemson, a lot of big trees are coming down so we want to make sure we’re growing that green infrastructure along with our built infrastructure. So we’re covering a lot of bases with this program.”

“The partnership has been great. It makes sense that we have partnerships with the city and university, particularly with Extension and our horticulture and arboriculture department. Because we share the same natural resources, and it’s good to have a nice, unified idea and philosophy about how we’re treating our natural resources around here.”


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