Maintaining Bradford pears in the United States is a multi-million dollar per year industry. When Bradfords were more widely planted, billions or dollars were spent maintaining, bolting, cabling and bracing them. Cities are and have been moving away from Bradford pears for years, and are replacing them with less problematic, more easily maintained and longer lived species.
Every time we have a storm of any intensity, I ALWAYS get a phone call for a split Bradford pear. Upon inspection, the question always arises as to whether or not to remove the broken limb(s) or, in cases with extreme tree/trunk damage, remove the whole tree. Often the damage it too severe or the aesthetics of the tree is so compromised the homeowner wants to remove and replace.
Another problem with Bradford pears is that they do not live very long. A life expectancy in the range of 18-25 years is typical, depending on the site. As for the size, people are often surprised at their canopy spread as the trees approach maturity. When they start getting large, the limbs have a tendency to have very few upright limbs, as most of the limbs pull down as they thicken up. This leaves the center sparse and aesthetically displeasing to many people.
The reason Bradford pears split, is quite simple. Firstly, they have numerous limbs that all originate from the same point on the stem. These limbs all have weak, acutely angled crotches to begin with, all with included bark. Included bark is bark that forms on the inside of the branch unions, and where it forms there is no wood to wood connection. Additionally, as these limbs expand in diameter they put pressure against one another. As these limbs are already weakly connected due to the included bark, the additional end weight exacerbates failure potential. Add to this weak dry wood, due to drought conditions, or wind and added water weight in summer storms, and you have a recipe for disaster.
I have had customers in tears before due to Bradford pear failures from summer storms. If it’s the only front yard tree you have, it can be quite devastating to the landscape when it fails. They are beautiful trees in the springtime. They explode with striking white flowers, and they are relatively bullet-proof with respect to most diseases. Also, there is no messy fruit to deal with.
So, are there any substitutes for Bradford pears? Yes! There is the aristocrat pear, Pyrus calleryana, ‘Aristocrat’, 25-45 feet tall at maturity and considered a much better species, with a dominant trunk and more open form. Why reputable tree nurseries still sell Bradford pears is beyond me. There are of course many other species to consider as well, such as crepe myrtles, non-flowering species like Chinese pistache trees, and many others.
If you do have a Bradford pear, it is not necessarily the end of the world. If the tree is maintained and thinned out regularly, and cabled in extreme cases, it can give the homeowner many years of shade and spring color.