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This Experimental Technique May Save Some Hazardous Louisville Pear Trees

pear trees

In a city fighting the loss of thousands of trees a year, a local arborist is experimenting with using an old technique to preserve dangerous trees in one urban neighborhood — rather than remove them.

Across Louisville, trees are beginning to bloom. One species of tree, the Bradford Pear, is known for the bountiful white flowers that line neighborhood streets, including many in the city's Butchertown neighborhood.

But besides being pretty, Bradford Pears are an invasive species. They're also known for splitting, losing branches and damaging whatever lies underneath.

That's what happened to Al Mitchell last June, when a branch fell on his friend's car outside Mitchell's condo in Butchertown.

“They’re beautiful trees and they provide a really beautiful canopy over the street, but we were afraid, as residents here in the condo association, of the liability,” Mitchell said.

But there are reasons to try to keep Butchertown’s established pear trees.

A 2015 study found Jefferson County lost trees at a rate of about 54,000 per year.

Trees also clean the air, help absorb storm water run-off and shade the city — reducing the urban heat island effect.

That's why Chris O’Bryan, an arborist and co-owner of Limbwalker Tree Service, is trying to assuage Mitchell's condo association's worries, and still save the pear trees. He's using a European tree trimming technique called pollarding.

Usually, pollarding is a yearly maintenance of small prunes on growing trees, but O’Bryan’s applying the technique to the older Bradford Pears.

On Monday, O’Bryan and his crew began work on two trees. Overall, the tree will be about half as tall when they’re done, with fewer large limbs and a full canopy.

O’Bryan and his team of arborists plan to trim and maintain the trees over the next six years to keep them full, but at a much smaller size.

“You know a tree this size took 30 or 40 years, maybe 60 years, to establish so you need to think about the future, the best tree today is what someone planted 30 years ago,” O'Bryan said.

O’Bryan is already talking with the city’s forester and Louisville Gas and Electric about the possibility of pollarding other trees if his experiment is successful.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.