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David Lusk, shares lessons from a forbidden tree

Throughout our city is a well-known, controversial, once popular but poorly understood tree. Loved by some, frowned upon by others, there has never been a more puzzling, enigmatic tree. How could a tree that once held so much promise as an all-purpose, compact, flowering, amenity tree fall so quickly out of favor? In the grand scheme of things, why does the story of a small tree that is gradually being removed from the urban palette even matter? This article focuses on the implications of a polarity of forces, working for and against a community’s trees; on the consequences of forcing nature to comply with the needs of a growing city, rather than a city that complies to the needs of nature; and of how a forbidden tree can serve to teach us that nature is the wiser, more consummate teacher of beauty and sustainability.

Planted extensively in the 1980s and 1990s, the Bradford pear tree became a dominant feature in many subdivisions, on commercial properties and in parking lots. There has locally never been a more wildly popular landscape ornamental, amenity tree. The Bradford pear tree grows amazingly fast, yet symmetrical, with showy white flowers in the spring and, like fast food for the landscape, satisfies the desire for quick, pleasing, lush landscapes. Initially, they helped sell houses and decorated business properties, parking lots and downtown sidewalks. Although we have lost many of our native trees in the process of urban expansion, the Bradford pear quickly filled our need for fast-growing and affordable landscape trees that did not get too big and take up too much of the space that the larger, more majestic native oaks, hickories, maples and pines demand of us.

All was well until, 15 or more years after planting, an inordinate number of the ornamental pear trees started mysteriously falling apart. Structurally, the main branches of the Bradford pear develop as a fastigiate, upwardly growing bundle of sprouts. Inside these bunched-up trunk branches are internal seams and separations between branches as they grow in quick synchrony, rather than slowly interlocking like those of an oak or hickory. With the occasional gust of 30-plus mile-per-hour winds, the weaker Bradford pears split in halves, quarters or thirds.

Not all Bradford pear trees are without merit. Judicious removal of the weaker trees or selective pruning of weak branches are sound management strategies for most all trees. However, there is a low tolerance for trees that too readily drop their parts and, unfortunately, the order is often made to decapitate whole tops from trees in an effort to reduce their weight and prevent them from falling apart. Ironically, the end results are countless chain saw-blighted properties with unsightly trees struggling to resprout and survive the onslaught, as they are forbidden to either grow with dignity or be replaced.

The perception of the Bradford pear as a totally flawed tree has led the way for a resurgence and a faulty rationalization for the outdated and ill-advised practice of tree topping. As a result, a multitude of the pears, along with crepe myrtles (the easiest and most severely topped), willow oaks, cherries and maples throughout our communities are also targets. These topped trees stand as glaring reminders of an increasing desire for miniaturized, obedient, sanitized landscapes, rather than the magnificent “tree tunnel” boulevards, tree groves and woodlands past generations fostered and revered. The possibility of tree grandeur is sacrificed for cookie cutter, sculpted trees and shrubs; healthy trees sacrificed for containment, creativity for conformity. There is a paradoxical desire for nature but only under heavy-handed constraints. With Bradford pears leading the way, the countless number of topped crepe myrtles, oaks and maples stand as testament to an all too pervasive disconnect from nature’s intent.

A comparative reflection on how the natural world grows, thrives and survives provides an unparalleled venue to better teach us how to create healthier, more attractive and sustainable communities. How are we expected to know or experience such things when the native trees and woodlands of yesteryear are so quickly disappearing from our neighborhoods and further from the minds and interests of younger generations? Every time the wind blows there is much to consider and learn from the quaking beauty of the forbidden tree.

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