It is the middle of March, an unusually warm March in Central Maryland, and everywhere there are white and palest pink clouds of blossom. The Bradford pears, both the tame and the wild, are in full white bloom (the pink trees are cherries). They are gorgeous, and if there is a heaven, I picture it filled with these blossoming trees and daffodils and violets and new green grass.
At our old house, there was a great beauty of a Bradford in the front yard, one of many that lined the neighborhood streets and created an ethereal glory around us for a week or two every spring. It was a perfect tree for climbing, and my daughters quickly learned to scurry up and hide in it like squirrels. One of my favorite memories is of Tara around age 11, perched among the blossoming branches on a sunny afternoon, reading a book.
This particular Bradford was so large that it almost concealed the house; unusual because this particular variety of ornamental pear is short-lived. The branches are easily broken in storms or heavy winds, which is one reason they fell out of favor as street trees.
Introduced from its native China and Korea to the U.S. in 1916, Pyrus calleryana, the botanical name for the Bradford pear, was promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture beginning in 1963 for its lovely pyramidal form, two-week spring blossoming period and beautiful fall colors. In our area it is one of the first trees to bloom, preceded only by the stellar magnolia and its pink cousins.
And when almost every other deciduous tree has lost its leaves, the Bradford’s tough leaves turn every shade of crimson, gold, flame, orange, maroon and even purple, in a spectacular show that often lasts until Thanksgiving.
Bradfords gone wild
Alas, the Bradford has several flaws: the aforementioned tendency to split apart in heavy winds and snow, its growth of pesky suckers from the base of the trunk, and the unpleasant smell of the flowers.
And there is one more. It’s gone wild. Birds eat the tiny brown fruits, and spread the seed everywhere they go. Declared an invasive species in many states and communities, they nevertheless put on a pretty show when they bloom.
As I drive along sections of I-370 and I-270 this week, I see the sides of the roads decorated with dozens upon dozens of wild Bradfords, rising like ghosts from the terrain. One section of Route 355 just south of Shady Grove Road used to be lined with stately rows of them. Inevitably, they fell prey to the weather, but their descendants now fill the entire field behind Route 355.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads” is about Maryland
Sights like this bring to mind a song that the late John Denver popularized in the early 1970s, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. I’ll start humming “Almost heaven…” as I drive past the flowering madness, and then realize once again that this song was not originally about West Virginia, but a road right here in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Back in 1970, I’m told, Gaithersburg was “nothing but cows,” according to a former colleague at the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper who hailed from Bethesda, MD. Through this wilderness, musicians Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert were headed to a family reunion of the latter’s relatives. During the drive, Danoff started making up a ballad about the winding country roads, specifically thinking of Clopper Road, which heads west from Gaithersburg to Germantown and Boyds. Because they couldn’t think of a way to rhyme Maryland, the song’s setting was changed to West Virginia.
In December, 1970, Danoff and Nivert, performing as the duo Fat City, opened for Denver at the Cellar Door in Washington DC. Afterward they sang the road song for Denver, and the three of them stayed up all night rewriting it. They performed the song for the first time on December 30, 1970 at the Cellar Door, to a long standing ovation, then recorded it in New York City the following month. It appeared on the LP Poems, Prayers and Promises, and the single of the song sold a million copies by August 1971.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads” often pops into my head unexpectedly when I’m on Clopper Road, particularly where it runs alongside Great Seneca Park. Maybe the song really belongs to the road, even though the area has changed greatly over four decades. And it’s so true. In springtime, this part of Maryland, suburbs and all, still looks almost like heaven.
Bye bye, Bradford
Our old Bradford pear tree succumbed to storms a few years after we relocated to a nearby neighborhood, but members of my family will drive through the old streets to see the other pear trees in bloom.
The house we moved to in 1998 doesn’t have a Bradford pear, though it boasts two gigantic silver maples that give good shade in the back yard, but drive us crazy with their big roots that push through the lawn and into the vegetable garden. Over the years we’ve planted a couple of kousa dogwoods, because the native dogwood, cornus florida, is falling victim to disease, and a hybrid Stellar dogwood developed by my alma mater, Rutgers University.
We’ve also put in a river birch with its odd peeling bark, a pair of hybrid America-Chinese chestnuts, a red maple, and a Sargent crabapple. But my favorite is the Cleveland pear, a variant of the Bradford that has a stronger branch structure and good resistance to various blights. It’s a taller, skinnier version of the Bradford, and this year it has really begun to look mature and beautiful in bloom.
And it has one more feature that I like: its blossoms don’t smell nearly as unpleasant as a Bradford’s.
It’s almost heaven in Maryland as spring begins today, but all this beauty is fleeting. In another week the green leaves will show through the white blossoms, and other ornamental trees and shrubs will bloom in their allotted times or sooner, if this warm weather persists.
There will be crabapples, and Kwanzan cherries that fill some neighborhoods in Rockville with their pink powderpuffs, and scatter pink snow on sidewalks and lawns. The native dogwoods, though fewer in number, will put on their lacy show, and redbuds will burst with vivid lavender-pink. Then come the azaleas in every lipstick shade there is, followed by their sisters the rhododendrons, and finally the kousa dogwoods looking like snow in summer, pointed white petals piled over green leaves.
Then comes summer, and roses.
I wonder, though, whether we would go crazy over these white and pink spring trees if they stayed that way for half the year. Would we eventually get weary of the blossoms and long for the sight of cool green leaves, or the color explosions of autumn? Would I really enjoy a heaven perpetually in the bloom of spring, or would I yearn for roses and tomatoes? Or for the bare grey branches sparkling with ice and snow, and no sidewalks to shovel?