Ask Burton: Q: One of my mature Bradford pear trees is suddenly turning yellow, orange, and brown, while the rest of my yard looks fine. What could be causing this, and how can I help the tree recover?

A: Sadly, this sounds like your ornamental pear is falling prey to cotton root rot, a fungal disease common in high-pH, clay soils… so, basically, the soil that most of us deal with. This is one of several issues with ornamental pears that have caused most of us in the local nursery trade to move away from the species for the past quarter century.

Cotton root rot spreads slowly through the soil, infesting the root systems of several common trees and ornamentals. The damage comes to a peak as we reach our hottest conditions – at that point, the plants can no longer keep up with the water needs of the top of the plant with a compromised root system. The disease is not automatic – many ornamental pears can go their whole normal lifespan without falling prey to it. However, when you see this damage (usually as temperatures peak), there is no saving the plant. If there is another Bradford pear anywhere close to your first, it has a good chance of going the same way in the next few years.

Ornamental pears are the tree we see falling to this disease more than any other. When you go to replant, we’d recommend you replant with oaks, Chinese Pistache, Magnolias, Pecans, or Cedar Elm. These trees will not have a problem with the cotton root fungi present in the soil.