March 16, 2022

Pear Trees on Witherspoon Street To Be Replaced by Hardier Varieties

SAY GOODBYE: The Bradford pear trees that bloom on Witherspoon Street in early spring are about to become history as the Witherspoon Street Improvement Project begins. (File photo by Charles A. Plohn)

By Anne Levin

For the past few decades, spring in Princeton has been unofficially ushered in by a graceful canopy of blossoming trees on Witherspoon Street. These Bradford pear trees between Nassau and Green streets turn the thoroughfare into a kind of white fairyland that lasts a week or two at most.

Those days are about to end. Starting next week, Princeton Public Works will be removing the trees as part of the Witherspoon Street Improvement Project’s first phase. Plans are to replace them with four different species. It turns out that the Bradford pear is as destructive as it is beautiful.

“When we have projects like these, if the trees are desirable species we do our best to minimize the damage,” said Taylor Sapudar, Princeton’s municipal arborist. “But these are really self-destructive trees. They are very invasive, and are on the [Princeton] Environmental Commission’s do-not-plant list.”

Princeton’s Shade Tree Commission has given its approval for removal of the trees. “They agree that they are a nuisance, and at the end of their life cycle,” said Sapudar. “And the work to repair and replace them would destroy their root systems.”

Issues with Bradford pear trees are widespread. “In the late 1980s, the Bradford pear was the most commonly planted tree across the country,” said Sapudar. “But they’ve been problematic. If you do a Google search, there are tons of articles about them and the trouble they cause.”

Having just one species on a street is not a good idea. A more diverse mix is preferable. The town will replace the Bradford pear trees with four varieties that co-exist well. “People like the ‘allée’ planting pattern, and we will repeat that where we can,” said Sapudar.

On the list are the Kentucky coffeetree, the hackberry tree, the shade master honey locust, and the gingko — the kind that doesn’t smell. “The variety we’re planting is the male, which doesn’t have the odor,” Sapudar said of the gingko. The Kentucky coffeetree is a native. “We have some of them throughout town, and they have proven to be very urban-tolerant with minimal pest issues,” he said.

Also tolerant is the hackberry, which won Urban Tree of the Year in 2020 from the Society of Municipal Arborists. The shade master honey locust is urban-tolerant, “and doesn’t get the messy seed pod like other honey locusts,” he said. “This is the male variety. It’s the same with the Kentucky coffeetree, a male cultivar which doesn’t get the seed pod.”

Once the new varieties are planted, the look on Witherspoon Street will be different. “These will all flower, but it won’t be so conspicuous,” Sapudar said. “The seasonal flowering will be more in the understory vegetation, and the seasonal interest will be in their fall color.”

Utility construction on the Witherspoon Street Improvement Project began in early January. Once the tree removal is completed, the work will continue with sidewalk removal and expansion, roadway surface removal and replacement, and signal-timing updates at the Paul Robeson/Wiggins/Witherspoon Street intersection. Just when the replanting will take place is not yet determined.

“Landscaping is always the last phase of a project,” said Sapudar.