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Wedding Dress Trees: Of Bradford Pears (and Gnarled Old Oaks)

Wedding Dress Trees: Of Bradford Pears (and Gnarled Old Oaks)    —by Jinny Batterson

A Bradford pear in bloom

Yesterday was a dreary day, made more dreary for me because it contained a memorial service for an elderly former congregation-mate.  We’d had a wetter than usual winter. It seemed the rain would never go away.  Precipitation since the first of December was running about 40% above average.  A late-winter jaunt that my husband and I had recently taken to cities further south had been largely unsuccessful at getting away from the wet. A few sunny days, but mostly just more rain. 

After the memorial service, I drove back toward our condo. The weather alternately showered, drizzled and misted, continuing its uninviting pattern. The white roadside blooms of our area’s Bradford pears and their naturalized cousins temporarily brightened the landscape. A few of the trees reminded me of inverted wedding dresses—puffy, full, virginally white.

I knew a little about this species of tree. Near my former home in Richmond, Virginia, rows of them had been planted as street trees during the 1970’s or 80’s. There, they’d provided ethereal beauty for a couple of weeks each spring. When young, the trees were a welcome addition to the landscape. However, as they aged, they produced mostly headaches. Few lived past twenty, not very old for a tree. Their brittle wood had a tendency to split any time there was a wind stronger than a gentle breeze. During thunderstorm season, city maintenance trucks performed branch clearing chores so regularly they might as well have parked for the summer along the pear-lined street.

Curious for more information about the history of both our departed elder and the Bradford pear, I clicked a few online keys.

According to the obituary that I belatedly read, “Old Jim Quinn,” a long-term member of the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, had served in the military in post-war Europe, but otherwise spent nearly all his 87-plus-year life in North Carolina. He’d married Sonnya, his “Super Chick,” in 1955. During the 1970’s, he’d served two terms on the Raleigh City Council. Later, he and Sonnya became regulars at civil rights marches and demonstrations. Along the way Jim had sired and helped raise several children, designed buildings, helped promote affordable housing before it became a buzzword, and served in numerous other civic capacities. He was known far and wide for his barbecue skills. By the time I knew him slightly, he was gray and a little stooped, if still quick with a smile and a witty remark. 

According to a somewhat critical article (https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/life/2016/03/21/curse-bradford-pear/82070210/), the Bradford pear was introduced as a landscape tree by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1964, imported from its native China and presumed to be sterile. Before long, it was an urban landscape fixture in cities throughout the Southeast. As the first trees aged, problems with their brittle wood became more apparent. Later, problems with cross-pollination with other pear varieties showed up, along with the invasive nature of some hybrid offspring. By now, most towns have stopped planting new Bradford pear cultivars. Some jurisdictions and homeowners have even begun active attempts to rein in Bradford pears and the offspring that can form dense thorny hedges and crowd out native flowering trees.

Bradford pear blossoms

Raleigh, long-time home to Jim Quinn, bills itself as the “city of oaks.” There’s a gnarled old specimen behind our condo, not unlike the gnarled older version of Jim I used to see at church. If Sonnya once in a while looks at her long-ago wedding dress or passes it on to a granddaughter or great-niece for reuse, she must constantly miss the gnarled old oak her life mate grew to become. Here’s to you, Old Jim Quinn.