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OAK WILT

Northern Red Oaks are the most susceptible to wilt

By: Sandy Feather ©2011
Penn State Extension


Q. A disease called "oak wilt" has been identified in my neighborhood. I have three red oak trees that make my backyard a shady haven and I would hate to lose them. How can I protect my trees?

A. Oak wilt occurs in the United States from from Minnesota to Texas and Kansas to Pennsylvania, where it occurs east of the Susquehanna River. Although all oaks can be infected, those in the red oak group are most susceptible. These include northern red oak (Quercus rubra), pin oak (Q. palustris), black oak (Q. velutina) and scarlet oak (Q. coccinea). Chestnut trees are also susceptible, including American (Castanea dentata), Chinese (C. mollisima), European (C. sativa) and bush chinquapin (C. pumila). 

 


Susceptible Oak Trees

Susceptible trees can die within a few weeks of infection. Species in the white oak group are less susceptible, including white oak (Q. alba), bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), and swamp white oak (Q. bicolor). When trees in this group are infected, they may decline a period of two or three years, rather than dying quickly.


Remission

On occasion, the symptoms go into remission and the tree survives.  It is possible that the same characteristic that makes white oak useful for whiskey barrels and wine casks helps protect them from oak wilt. When trees in the white oak group are wounded or infected, small plugs called tyloses block off the sapwood and wall off the damage. These tyloses make the wood impervious to water and and appear to inhibit the oak wilt fungus from moving throughout the tree.

Red Oak leaves
Red Oak leaves


Oak wilt symptoms

Oak wilt symptoms vary according to species and region. Generally for red oak group trees in our area, symptoms start near the top of the tree and progress downward. Leaves on infected trees turn dull green, then bronze or tan. This browning is frequently evident at the leaf tips or margins. Sometimes the leaves droop and curl lengthwise. Browning may also occur along the veins. Leaves at branch ends begin to fall soon after symptoms become noticeable, and often drop while they are still green.

Twigs and branches die, and you may be able to see brown streaks in the sapwood of infected trees, but this symptom is not always apparent. Leaf discoloration and defoliation continue throughout the crown of the tree for several weeks until the tree is dead. It is not always possible to isolate the oak wilt fungus from samples in the laboratory; trees that are already dead yield no results at all, so oak wilt cannot be determined after the fact. Diagnosis is primarily based on symptoms.

Symptoms in the white oak group are similar, but advance much more slowly, and do not cause the sudden defoliation and death seen in the red oak group. The symptoms are often confined to a single branch, and can look like typical fall coloration.


FUNGUS: Ceratocystis fagacearum

Oak wilt is caused by the fungus Ceratocystis fagacearum. The disease kills infected trees by clogging their vascular systems until they are unable to transport water and nutrients throughout the tree. Two species of insects are responsible for long distance transmission of oak wilt, oak bark beetles and sap beetles.


The Role of Oak bark beetles

Oak bark beetles lay their eggs in infected trees. The adults emerge from egg-laying covered with spores of the fungus and transmit the disease to healthy trees when they feed. Sap beetles are attracted to the fungal mats produced by the disease because of their fruity odor. They also become covered with disease-causing spores and transmit oak wilt to healthy trees by feeding. They are particularly attracted to fresh pruning wounds. Prune oak trees during winter dormancy (November through mid-April) to minimize infection via this route. Oaks are most susceptible in spring and early summer as new growth is occurring.

Northern Red Oak
Northern Red Oak tree


Oak Wilt spreads through Root Grafts

Another way that oak wilt is spread is through naturally occurring root grafts. This is the most common method of transmission in a localized outbreak. Trees of related species growing in proximity to one another – within about 50 feet - often have their roots grow together as if they had been grafted. Vascular diseases such as oak wilt are easily transmitted from infected trees to healthy ones through shared vascular tissue in these grafts.

 

These root grafts must be broken to protect uninfected trees. This can be done by digging a trench between infected and healthy trees, or by killing the grafts chemically. Root grafts should be broken before removing an infected tree. If infected trees are removed prior to breaking those root grafts, there is a risk that infected sap can “backwash” into the healthy tree. Healthy trees that are root grafted to infected ones can be protected by breaking root grafts prior to removals of the infected trees, then injecting the healthy tree with propiconazole (Alamo).


Remove Infected Oaks

Infected trees should be removed as soon as possible. There is no chemical control for oak wilt once symptoms are apparent in more than 30 percent of the crown. Prompt removal of infected oaks is important to protect those trees not yet infected. Destroy the wood immediately, including the stump, by burning, burying or debarking so that it is not attractive to the insects responsible for the spread of oak wilt. Do not stack the wood for firewood, or transport logs with intact bark, since insects in the infected wood can leave and carry the fungal spores to healthy trees.


Making the Proper Diagnosis

It is wise to contract with a certified arborist for an accurate diagnosis of oak wilt and the safe removal of dead trees. If less than 30 percent of the crown is affected, injections of Alamo (propiconazole) can put the disease into temporary remission. Any root grafts between the infected tree and neighboring oaks should be broken, because Alamo does not kill the fungus present in the tree's roots. An arborist can also advise you about protecting uninfected oaks with injections of Alamo every other year.
  

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