The new year will bring a change to the landscape of Parsippany-Troy Hills.
In 1976, the town earned the Arbor Day Foundation honor of being designated a Tree City USA, thanks to the thousands of neat and picturesque Bradford pear trees lining many of its streets. But now, after the damage caused by and to many of the arboreal hybrids during last year's late summer floods and surprise October snowstorm, the municipal Parks and Forestry department is beginning to bring down many of the Bradfords in the interest of public safety.
"We're still cleaning up and getting rid of hanging branches right now," Parks and Forestry Superintendent James Walsh said. "The next step is to assess the damage of the trees. … This is going to take some time, a good couple of years, to complete."
This is not how the story of Parsippany and its Bradford pear trees was expected to unfold. When Joseph Jannerone Sr. learned of a new hybrid tree and planted the first crop of them in the township nearly 40 years ago, the veteran municial forester envisioned a happy story—generations of Parsippany families living, working and playing in a bucolic setting filled with gorgeous trees. And for a long time, that storyline worked. Now, it appears the happy story has turned into a tale of unintended consequences.
The first hint of trouble, for some, came when resident John Puglis took to the microphone during the public comment period at the Nov. 29 Township Council meeting.
"I nearly lost my bride of 38 years," he exclaimed, referring to his wife Mary, who just escaped being hit by a massive, heavy pear tree branch that fell outside of their Howell Court home. Shaken by the near-miss and determined to take action, the Puglises researched and compiled a 45-page report on the possible perils of Bradford pear trees with a hope of alerting the council and their fellow residents.
According to the Puglis report, many U.S. municipalities, Parsippany among them, turned to the Bradford pear tree as a landscaping innovation in the 1970s and '80s.
Back then, Joe Jannerone was moving the local Parks and Forestry department from an operation featuring one man and one broken chain saw into a finely tuned operation of workers and increasingly sophisticated equipment. Jannerone told Patch that much of the impetus for the evolution came on the back of enthusiasm for the Bradford pear tree.
The Bradford, he said, is not created through nature. It is a cultivated hybrid of the Callery pear tree. Foresters three decades ago believed the arboreal creation was, for municipalities, a miracle tree: It boasted wonderful ornamental qualities—rapid growth, an appealing shape, elegant white flowers in spring, rich reddish-orange flowers in fall—all without fruit growth and without the need for the painstaking maintenance other tree varieties required.
"We really believed this was the ideal town tree," Jannerone said.
But by the late 1980s and early '90s, Jannerone said an inconvenient reality regarding the trees started to become apparent.
"The Bradford pear is a wet wood," the tree expert said. "As the trees grow, sometimes the branches don't grow in the correct manner. Say you have two branches competing for space. As they grow together, they push together until eventually the branch pushes away and breaks off."
Jannerone said that there is a quality about the tree that makes moisture collect in the "crotch," the V-shaped connection between a branch and the main body of the tree. The tree lives on average 15 years. When a tree becomes older than that, often it loses structural soundness as the moisture-caused weight of the branches becomes too much for the tree to support.
"We found that by careful pruning, we could help the trees last longer," Jannerone said.
Pruning has remained the go-to method for dealing with the trees since, according to Walsh.
"By selectively removing different branches and reducing the weight of the trees, we've kept them longer," Walsh said. "There are some trees we have to remove, and when they do finally break and we realize there's nothing left of them, we do remove them."
In his report, Puglis recommends an immediate triage plan, wherein the oldest and most heavily damaged trees are targeted to be removed first.
"This is serious," he said. "These trees are past their life expectancy. Every day that passes brings us closer to an inevitable tragedy. My wife, thank goodness, was lucky, but the next person may not be as fortunate."
Walsh said Puglis' recommendation is exactly the plan he has for his department's handling of the Bradford pear trees. At the same time, he does not want residents alarmed.
"When damaged trees have been reported, we have removed them, and we are working hard. But many of these trees are double the age of the recommended life of these trees," he said. "We did the proper pruning to keep them in decent shape. But [after the storms] there are so many that you can't get to all of them in time. We are doing our best. This is going to take some time."
And according to Walsh, Bradfords are not the only trees that lost limbs and endangered lives during last year's storms.
"Oaks and maples dropped branches too," he said. "The bottom line is the nature of [the Bradford pear tree], they do have branches that fall. Some of this is just nature's doing. People have to make good choices. Don't stand under the tree when it's windy. Any tree has the capability of having branches fall in bad weather.
"I don't think anyone is in imminent danger from the trees themselves," Walsh said.
So is the worry surrounding this particular cultivar an overreaction?
"Not necessarily. I wouldn't say the trees are getting a bad rap," Walsh said. "They do have the character of dropping branches. But we are focused on the problem and we will do all we can. Safety is important to all of us."
Jannerone, who planted many of the trees himself, said this is a disappointing tale that reminds us that no matter what we humans or our institutions do, innovation always carries with it a risk.
"When we planted the trees, we were nothing but excited," he recalled. "Of course we had no information on how the trees would hold up over the long haul. The trees were so attractive and people loved them."
Jannerone retired in 2003 and is now nearing 80, but he is still wild about trees. He recalled the longtime Parsippany Arbor Day custom of presenting each third grade student in the township with his or her own tree seedling.
"Do you know how many kids were so excited to get their own tree over the years? I even remember a child who had his parents dig up the tree and take it with them when [the family] moved to a new house," he said. "And becoming a Tree City, that was something that made everyone proud. Arbor Day meant something in Parsippany.
"Every intention behind planting the Bradford pear was good," Jannerone continued. "It's sad that things did not turn out the way we thought they would. Sometimes life does that—you think one thing will happen and then something else happens. I do know that when we discovered a problem, we stopped planting them. We did everything we could for safety."
Walsh said that priority—safety—is still paramount.
"We will start with the oldest and most fragile trees to bring them down," said Walsh. "People have to be patient because it will take time. But yes, safety matters, to the residents and to the department. We will get this dealt with."