Bradford Pear — Tuna on a Trunk

March 13, 2009 | By | Comments (56)

“What’s that awful smell?” my son demanded the other day. “It’s all over the neighborhood.” Bradford_2

Had our next-door neighbor reopened his glue factory? Had week-old shrimp rained from the sky? Had banking execs awarded themselves more million-dollar bonuses? Nope. The stench was emanating from the prettiest trees on the street.


You know ’em. Bradford pears. The most ubiquitous spring-flowering trees in the United States and, quite possibly, the entire Milky Way galaxy. Homeowners love them because they’re showy. Nurserymen love them because they grow fast. Landscapers love them because they’re hard to kill.

My son hates them because they stink.

He’s not making a value judgment here. He’s not commenting on their moral fiber or their ability to get along with other trees. He’s just saying that his olfactory nerve is greatly offended whenever the white pear blossoms are open. Like now.

To what shall I compare the fragrance? Certain bodily fluids come to mind, on which I shall not elaborate. However, I think most people would be reminded of a fish that’s been sitting out way too long. Flounder, perhaps? Tuna? Mullet, salmon, or mackerel?

What a perfect topic for discussion at your next garden club luncheon.

Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana Bradford) was born at the USDA Plant Introduction Station in 1963 and named for horticulturist F.C. Bradford. During the next two decades, the tree was lauded as one of the top ornamental trees for America. It offered just about everything you could want from a tree — beautiful flowers in spring; formal pyramidal shape; disease free; tolerant of drought, poor soil, and pollution; quick to grow; and outstanding fall foliage in colors of scarlet, crimson, orange, and yellow.

But like many plant introductions, this one was released as an adolescent without really knowing what it would grow up to be. I remember being taught in hort class that Bradford pear was a small to medium-size ornamental tree that would grow 25-30 feet tall and 25 feet wide. Apparently, however, no one consulted Bradford pear on this. In fact, it grows twice this big, making it too large for many smaller yards.

That wasn’t the worst of it. Bradford pear has a serious genetic defect. Most all of its main limbs diverge from the trunk at a single point, so they’re very weakly attached. Once the tree reaches 30 feet tall, strong winds start snapping major limbs or splitting the entire tree in half. I first witnessed this in college when a large Bradford pear literally fell down in front of me. Now after every big storm, I drive around to see whose tree bought it this time. This unfixable quirk effectively reduces the useful life of a Bradford pear to about 20 years.

There are other flowering pears similar to Bradford, but without the splitting problem, such as ‘Aristocrat’ and ‘Chanticleer’ (also sold as ‘Cleveland Select’). Unfortunately, neither has fall foliage anywhere near as colorful as that of a Bradford.

Oh yeah, there’s one more little problem with Bradford. Although it doesn’t bear big pears, it does produce a plethora of tiny ones. Those little pears contain seed. When they fall to the ground, the seeds inside germinate and soon you have lots and lots of pear trees. Pear trees of all sizes punctuate the drainage ditches around a big shopping mall planted with Bradford pears near my home.

But far be it for the Grump to tell you not to plant a Bradford pear in front of your house. Just be prepared to explain to your kid why his yard smells like tuna every spring.


  1. Nico

    I’ve never in my entire 36 years on this earth, until last week, ever experienced the stench of a Bradford Pear tree. I thought my neighbor was dead in her apartment. I cannot believe the God awful stink actually comes from something so beautiful to look at! I hope the smell goes away soon…I have 16 of them lined up in a row outside my door 😷😷😷

    May 5, 2015 at 7:55 pm
  2. Gia

    It’s not just the season. Our development has had this beautiful, yet stinky trees for years. During evening walks, one can smell what seems to be the odor of plastic or a dead body ! Once they get to a decent height, the “scent” is very clear ! Known for their beauty, they become the talk of the town for what they emit ! Peeeuuuuuwww ! otherwise, we love them 🙂

    April 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm
  3. Fringe Tree — The Best Native Tree Nobody Grows – The Daily South | Your Hub for Southern Culture

    […] virginicus) has always played twelfth fiddle to dogwood, saucer magnolia, flowering cherry, Bradford pear (yuck), and numerous others choices for spring-flowering trees. That’s just wacky. Indigenous […]

    April 28, 2013 at 9:39 am
  4. Jessica

    I refer to these “beautiful” trees as crotch bushes. I had to convice my father that’s what the disgusting smell was in our neighborhood!

    April 8, 2012 at 1:35 pm
  5. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    The flowers stink to attract pollinating insects. The odor goes away after pollination. The warm weather probably brought all of the trees into bloom at the same time, so it’s more noticeable now.

    March 20, 2012 at 12:41 pm
  6. Linda

    This is the first time in 15 yr that I have noticed the Bradfored Pears in my yard & on my street stinking. Wonder if the unseasonably warm weather has anything to do with it. Smells like stagnet standing water or sewer.

    March 19, 2012 at 7:28 pm

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