2018-08-05 / News

Oak Wilt disease killing trees in state

810-452-2601 • npugliese @mihomepaper.com

LAPEER COUNTY — A fast-spreading, extremely fatal disease is infecting and killing oak trees throughout the state of Michigan, and while the issue has yet to affect Lapeer County, area arborists are trying to keep it that way.

The disease is Oak Wilt, and according to Bo Burke, a consulting arborist currently operating in the Grand Traverse area, it’s brutal. “You don’t typically see Oak Wilt until late summer — the overall canopy wilts, into an army-green color, it goes from a nice glossy color to a dull color, and it droops from a lack of water and nutrients,” said Burke. “Then several weeks later the trees start dropping their leaves early, and it dies.”

Burke said the issue is especially prevalent in the northern regions of Michigan, and because the disease can spread quickly and easily and the state is home to an estimated 16 million red oak trees, awareness of the issue is paramount. “It’s really bad up here in Traverse City and Interlochen, it’s a big deal, and it’s gotten so bad it’s on the radar of the DNR because it spreads so quick,” he said. “All we can do is try to learn more and spread the word.”

According to Mary Brown, district manager of the Lapeer Conservation District, Oak Wilt has yet to be reported in Lapeer County, but that’s not to say the disease might not already be present. “It’s definitely something we need to keep an eye on,” said Brown. “Some public awareness would definitely be a plus.”

Both Brown and Burke said the current belief is that Oak Wilt is spread from tree to tree via beetles carrying fungal spores as well as through the root systems of infected trees. According to the Michigan DNR, Oak wilt moves slowly on its own through root systems and travels short distances overland when new spores are moved by beetles from an infected tree to a freshly pruned or injured tree. Oak wilt can be moved long distances when people move infected firewood from one location to another. Look for red oaks that suddenly drop their leaves in the summer. The disease spreads, killing nearby oaks from one year to the next. Currently, oak wilt is generally distributed throughout the Midwest and Texas.

Once infected, the trees will begin to show symptoms rapidly, said Joe Drinkhorn, a conservationist and advocate from Mayfield Township. “The leaves will begin to turn dull, color, and start to wilt. It will start to look like winter is just days away but it’s still summer,” Drinkhorn said. “Once infected it’s too late to fix. The tree or trees will die and there’s nothing that can be done to stop or reverse the process.”

The presence of Oak Wilt has been reported in counties contiguous to Lapeer County, including Oakland and Macomb counties. Brown said that the biggest action Lapeer County residents can take to prevent the spread of Oak Wilt is to refrain from moving firewood, infected or otherwise. “There are a number of diseases that can be spread that way, and Oak Wilt is just one of them,” she said.

Damaging red oak trees through pruning can lead to an increased risk of infection as well, said Burke. “What happens is once there’s an open wound in an oak tree, there’s a bunch of different types of beetles (carrying the infectious spores) that can smell it, that come flying to it — sometimes in only eight minutes,” he said. “Once that beetle gets on that live tree, it leaves a spore behind that gets inoculated into the tree’s vascular system. The tree dies in 4-6 weeks.”

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