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Invasive Bradford pears are such a problem SC scientists are offering free replacements

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Bradford pear trees in bloom put on a spectacular show, but have pitfalls. File/Provided

There's a bounty out for the Bradford pear, a tree that is reviled by scientists but omnipresent throughout the Southeast.

Or at least there is in Clemson, where city officials and the local Clemson University Extension office are offering free trees of different varieties for those who want to replace a Bradford. 

Participants must bring proof of death — in this case, a selfie with a cut pear will suffice. 

Bradford pears are ubiquitous, in part, because they put on a spectacular show in the spring: Almost simultaneously, the whole tree erupts into a flush of white blooms. U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists developed them in the middle of last century as a sub-variety of the callery pear, an Asian species of tree that's invasive, the Washington Post reported

Resistant to insects, the tree became a favorite of subdivision developers and urban planners around the country. But as it has steadily taken over roadsides, fields and yards, the Bradford and its cross-breeds have pushed out native wildlife.

Because it repels bugs, "every Bradford pear represents a food-free zone for birds that need a caterpillar to feed their young," said David Coyle, a professor with Clemson Extension who focuses on invasive species.

The Bradford is considered a "hazard tree" by the S.C. Forestry Commission, said Doug Wood, a spokesman. The hazard comes from both the weak structural shape of the tree and its soft wood, which make it easy for branches to split off and potentially hit nearby buildings. 

But the real issue is its propensity to spread, Coyle said. Originally thought to be sterile, the tree can be successfully pollinated by other, similar pear species that could be lurking nearby or even sprout off the Bradford's own rootstock. Like many commercially-produced trees and shrubs, the tree is grafted onto hardier roots of a different plant. 

When crossed with other pears, the Bradford transforms, sometimes growing cutting thorns that have been known to injure people and animals as well as pop rubber tires, Coyle said.

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Thus, he, the city of Clemson's horticulturist and the Forestry Commission coordinated to create the pilot event on Feb. 29 to replace the Bradford with other trees. 

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The Bradford pear is considered a "hazard tree" by the S.C. Forestry Commission. Having weak structural shape and soft wood makes it easy for the branches to split. File/AP

Bradford replacement programs have happened before in St. Louis and Fayetteville, N.C., with little success. But he hoped that a robust marketing program would help spread the word.

Wood, of the Forestry Commission, said he also hoped that the event would educate the public more broadly on the issue, because many people aren't eager to cut down the tree in their yard that blooms first in the spring. 

"I think if people knew what a threat they actually can be in the wider environment, they would adopt the thinking that plenty of other trees are suitable replacements," Wood said.

At the Clemson event, participants will find oaks, cypress, magnolia and dogwood among the 10 species of replacement trees. Four-hundred replacements trees are available. As of late January, Coyle said, there had already been 200 pre-registrations. 

Coyle said that the program could be expanded to other cities next year if it's successful. He's also considering whether a partnership could be made with a local tree cutter, because some people have expressed interest in the program but don't have the ability or equipment to cut their own pear down. 

As for future events, he said, "It really just comes down to how you can acquire the replacement trees?"

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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