Be Careful What You Wish For

For an illustrated version, see pages 16-17 in The EnvironMentor, Apr-May 2016, vol. 4, no. 5.

 

Be Careful What You Wish For

 

The old folks say that there was once a man who did a good deed for a leprechaun, who generously rewarded him with three wishes and a warning: "Be careful what you wish for!"

The man hurried home and told his wife the good news. What should they wish for? A bigger house? Money? Good health? A long old age? As they talked and dreamed, they began to argue. "I earned the wishes," the man said. "I should decide what we get." 

"But after all our years together, don't I get a say in these important decisions?" countered the wife.

They wrangled late into the evening, forgetting about supper until the man got so hungry that he remarked, "I wish I had a hot juicy sausage for supper." BING! There it was, steaming on a plate in front of him.

"A sausage!" cried the wife. "You wasted one of our precious wishes on a sausage? I wish it was stuck on the end of your nose!" BING! There it was, hanging from his nose.

Now what could they do? He couldn't spend the rest of his life with a sausage stuck to his nose. They had to use up their third wish to get it off. BING!

I hope it was tasty.

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There are many traditional stories about magic wishes, but they usually end with people no better off than they were at the start. I guess our ancesters knew that there was no such thing as a "free lunch."  When something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

 

We should have remembered that when callery pear trees (Pyrus calleryana) seemed to be everything we wanted for our yards and city landscaping. We didn't wish for much! just that a tree should have pretty flowers and/or foliage; grow anywhere; be free of pests; and have no fruits that would attract birds or critters. City arborists also favored a tree that didn't need expensive tree surgeon services, as required by mature oaks or elms. Could one kind of tree do all that?

Botanists originally brought P.calleryana from China and Viet Nam early in the 1900s as rootstock for grafting edible european pears (P. communis). Our American insects didn't like the asian tree: pest free! And it thrived in sandy or clay soil, wet or dry, acidic or alkaline. Plus-- it had gorgeous white flowers and, like any pear or apple, each cultivar was self-sterile: it couldn't set fruit unless it was pollinated by a different cultivar. By the 1950's, the "Bradford" cultivar was promoted as an ornamental tree and began to be planted in yards and towns across the country. This monoculture bore no pesky fruits! and the city arborists appreciated the way a wind or ice storm would make a mature Bradford suddenly fall apart. Cut it down, cart it off, plant another. No expensive maintenance.

But of course all the "Bradford" pear trees had the same shape. "Can't you breed some with a teardrop crown? A tall columnar crown? A round lollypop crown?" Of course! All the breeders needed was some new genetic samples from Asia. New varieties were widely planted and, lo and behold, they cross pollinated and bore fruit--not large or juicy, but attractive to birds. Isn't that good?

Unfortunately, while we admire the frothy white flowers that cover the trees and snow petals down on us. we must hold our noses: they smell like rotting fish. 

There are other reasons to decide that callery pears were "too good to be true." In Oklahoma and many other states, vacant lots near homes are now crowded with callery pears from the seeds spread by those birds. They trive untended, in almost all soil types (just like we wanted them to). But they crowd out native species. They are pest-free (just like we wanted). Since native insects can't eat them, they produce no bugs or caterpillars for our native birds to feed their babies. They just grow and bloom and spread, decorating our countryside in March. They sure do look pretty with the redbuds...

 

What can we do to "get this sausage off our noses"?

Wiping out the wild invasive trees is difficult, because they cheerfully resprout from stumps.

Some towns have banned the planting of any variety of callery pear in city parks or streets, and discourage homeowners from planting them. Instead, we can plant native species that look pretty but are not invasive, and can support native insects for our birds to eat. Recommended trees include common serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis), cockspur hawthorne (Crataegus crus-galli), green hawthorne (C. viridis) and the native sweet crabapple (Malus coronaria).

Callery pears looked too good to be true. And they were!