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Bleeding Beech Trees Not SOD

By Leslie McGuire

For the last 30 years, scientists have been trying to figure out why showpiece European beech trees, some that are hundreds of years old, are dying. The problem in finding a suspect lay in the fact that by the time someone called in George Hudler, a plant pathologist at Cornell University, it was too late. Only recently has he gotten calls before one of these majestic trees had become a skeleton.

Thanks to field tests of the bleeding cankers that form on the trunk, microscopic analysis and gene sequencing, Hudler has discovered that the culprit is phytophtor infestans, a variation of the microbe that caused the Irish potato famine. Initially, they'd thought this disease was an East Coast outbreak of sudden oak death, a current scourge for oaks on the West Coast. Plants and trees have been quarantined in nurseries, and that microbe is still on the move.

The symptoms found in beech trees are very much like those of sudden oak death: thin cracks in the bark that ooze sap, and a color change under the bark in the fall. Once a tree starts to get sick, it is attacked by a huge number of other pests and pathogens, and it becomes hard to tell which attacker is the cause of death. However, since getting samples from trees that were just starting the process, Hudler was able to classify the thread-like organisms and determine that they were much closer to brown algae than a fungus as they'd originally suspected.

At the moment, all you can do for a sick beech is give it lots of balancing soil improvements and plenty of water, but antifungal treatments specific to this microbe are presently being tested.

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June 17, 2019, 8:46 am PDT

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