originally published in Outdoor Living, Summer 2014
by Margo Farnsworth
I had inherited my much longed for older sister’s bedroom. It was a garret-like space that opened into our dusty, but neatly arranged attic with oversized attic fan serving as both focal point and cooling system in the early 1960’s. Here too, was the board where my chalk smudged seven-year-old fingers laid out my future farm. Lots of horses with paddocks to the west of the house and long southern pastures in the fore were carefully drawn. The front drive would, of course, be Bradford pears lined up two-by-two all the way to the street.
I was raised on a love of Bradford pears. Originally sent from China to Europe, their snowy spring dresses came to adorn landscapes in all the most fashionable business parks beginning in the ‘50s. As subdivisions became popular, so too were these orderly, oval-topped sentries planted throughout neighborhood entries and parks alike. Their march toward omnipresence had begun.
As time passed, years of dust settled on the chalkboard with the drawing of my farm. Bradford pears advanced their hold on whole communities as I was building a career and raising a family. No horticulturalist, I had not studied the darker side of the pernicious pear. As I grew, those first pears started to disintegrate in storms. “Break-away” pears we labeled them as we began to recognize they were neither strong nor long-lived, have lives of usually less than 25 years, with their demise commonly arriving after only 15 to 20 years.
Then, Douglas Tallamy added a tombstone for all of the cultivars of the Callery pear including the Bradford, Cleveland and handful of others. His studies revealed how poor these trees are in hosting food sources for birds and other wildlife. In a talk for the Missouri Prairie Foundation, Tallamy discussed computations that a single family of chickadee babies will devour 9,000 caterpillars on their way to adulthood. Those caterpillars like oak trees and other natives – Bradford pears, not so much.
As I wrote this article I contemplated the double row of Cleveland pears the former owners planted on my farm with a rueful smile. They have fire blight and all must be removed. I cannot blame myself or you for all the lacy ladies, those Bradford pears planted across our country. We only went where we were led. But I can pledge a new allegiance to serviceberry, redbuds and other native trees for beauty along my drive and food in the bellies of birds. And when a grandchild uses my old chalkboard, I’ll teach them well about the shallow pleasures of a pretty face or flower alone. Our landscape’s beauty is made of more substantial stuff.
About the writer: Margo Farnsworth is a writer, biomimicry instructor and Fellow for the Biomimicry Institute. She invites readers into nature, offering strategic ways to live with wild neighbors through biomimicry and other practical methods. Her work has appeared in the book Wildness: Relations of People & Place along with magazines such as The New Territory, EarthLines, TreeHugger and numerous blogs.