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State forestry program purges hundreds of Virginia Callery pear trees

Native trees given to residents from the Department of Forestry in exchange for chopping down a Callery pear tree. (Photo by Meghan McIntyre/Virginia Mercury)
Native trees given to residents from the Department of Forestry in exchange for chopping down a Callery pear tree. (Photo by Meghan McIntyre/Virginia Mercury)

Both residents and Virginia Department of Forestry officials agree: Callery pear trees, including the much-loathed Bradford pear variety, aren’t just offensive to the nose — they’re detrimental to the state’s environment. 

This story was reported and written by our media partner The Virginia Mercury

A new state  program is what led approximately 300 residents to the department’s headquarters in Charlottesville this past weekend, each having chopped down at least one pungent, invasive Callery pear in exchange for a native tree species. 

Inspired by similar programs in other states like North Carolina, the department’s forest health program manager Lori Chamberlin said Virginia’s exchange aims to not only decrease the number of Callery pears across the state, but also inform residents about the importance of native trees.

“We have so many native tree species that could also provide spring flowers or shade that would just be better for our ecological environment,” Chamberlin said.

While the  Callery pear might look aesthetically pleasing with its delicate white flowers, Chamberlin said that beauty comes with destruction. The tree’s dense leaf canopy can inhibit the growth of plants beneath it and its weak branches can break and damage property. 

During a 2021 ice storm, department forester Laura Hudson said Callery pears were the trees most frequently damaged.

“What happens is when all that ice and snow sat on the tops of the trees, they just literally couldn’t handle the weight and started to break,” Hudson said. 

Additionally, the tree alters soil by releasing a chemical that suppresses other plant species, its thorns can pop tires and it doesn’t attract caterpillars, which are an important food source for young birds. 

Callery pears were first  imported from Asia to the United States in the early 20th century for use in breeding programs to increase disease resistance in common pears. With its sturdy tolerance for environmental stressors, the tree became very popular for landscaping and street planting.

Many varieties have been developed over the years, although the “Bradford” pear tree is the best known. While the tree itself is sterile, Chamberlin said it can still be pollinated by other varieties of Callery pear trees. 

“We have so many types of Callerys in our landscape now because people have, for a while, thought this was the perfect landscape tree and just kept planting it and planting it,” Chamberlin said.

Now that there are so many varieties, Chamberlin said the tree is able to cross pollinate and produce viable fruit, which birds  eat and spread its seeds to other areas. Currently, the tree can be found almost everywhere throughout the commonwealth.

Albemarle resident Janelle Catlett said her yard used to house several Callery pears before she and her husband chopped down all but one large tree. The program, she said, was a great excuse to finally get rid of it.

“Every year he says ‘I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it,’ but then he doesn’t do it,” Catlett said. “If we do this this year and take pictures of it we will get a new tree and so, bingo, we got it down.”

Chamberlin said she was blown away that registration for the event filled in two days, despite it being the department’s first time. Now, hundreds of native trees are being planted across the state.

“We definitely hope to expand in the future hopefully to other locations, not just Charlottesville, so this can be a true statewide program,” Chamberlin said.