June: June is Bustin’ Out All Over (With Plant Health Problems)

SunWith the arrival of June, the plant disease floodgates have burst and the PDDC has been deluged with plant specimens with a wide range of plant health issues.

Probably the most striking samples showing up at the clinic right now are those that are showing symptoms of winter/cold injury.  I continue see samples from trees and shrubs where the entire plant has died over the winter with no signs of life this spring.  In particular, I have seen (and have also heard about) burning bushes that did not survive the winter.  While my clients have been distraught over this death and destruction, I have been trying to offer a silver lining (shocking, I know for Dr. Death!).  I point out that burning bush is classified as invasive plant in Wisconsin and that the death of these plants provides an opportunity to replace the shrubs with something more exciting and environmentally friendly.

When entire trees and shrubs have not died over the winter, in many cases parts of them have.  In particular, I have seen boxwoods, arborvitaes and other evergreens where branch tips have died and bleached over the winter.  This is a fairly classic symptom of winter burn/winter injury that I see every year.  This symptom might be a consequence of direct cold injury to tissue (a distinct possibility due to the extreme cold temperatures that we experienced in late January) or due to loss of moisture (from lack of sufficient water in the fall and/or exposure to dehydrating winds over the winter).  Slightly more subtle winter injury comes in the form of deciduous trees that leaf out, typically producing small leaves that then collapse and dry up.  I have been seeing this a lot on fruit trees (e.g., apples, pears, plums, cherries).  In these situations, there was likely sufficient internally stored water in the trees to initiate bud break and start leaf expansion, but also enough cold injury to the vascular (i.e., water-conducting) tissue to limit subsequent water movement into the leaves to further expand them and keep them alive.  I expect to see this collapse of leaves continue throughout the summer.  Many folks see this dieback on apples and pears and assume the problem is fire blight, but I have yet to diagnose this disease so far this year (and I’ve been trying very hard to find it).  Management for this type of dieback is simple pruning.  I suggest pruning four to six inches below obviously dead areas on branches.  The best time to prune for most trees and shrubs tends to be in the winter, but if you need to prune during the summer, be sure to prune only when it is dry.  Even though I don’t believe the dieback that I have described above is disease related, just to be safe, I still recommend that you disinfest pruning tools between cuts by dipping them in 10% bleach or (even better) 70% alcohol (e.g., rubbing alcohol).  Spray disinfectants can be used as a source of alcohol as well.  I do not recommend using pruning paints except if you are forced to prune an oak tree during the growing season (to prevent transmission of the oak wilt fungus via sap beetles).  You can dispose of branches by taking them to your municipal yard waste recycling center (if you have one available), burning them (where allowed by local ordinance) or burying them.

Another variation on leafing out that I have seen this year that I am attributing to cold injury is where trees leaf out completely, but have smaller than normal leaf size.  In these situation, I am suspicious that there is minor damage to the vascular tissue the trees, but not sufficient to totally prevent water from reaching branch tips.  I have a redbud tree in front of my home showing this symptomology.  The tree typically has large, lush foliage that provides a privacy screen for my front door.  This year the leaves are quite small and I can easily see through the thin canopy.  This tree also had much reduced flowering this year compared to previous years.  I have also seen smaller leaves on a lot of maples (particularly silver maples) this year, but these trees have shown excessive seed production compared to other years.  I call this overflowering/seeding phenomenon the “Oh my gosh, I’m going to die, I’d better reproduce” syndrome.  Over-flowering/seeding is typical for stressed trees.  However, because this year’s flower buds were formed last summer, the underlying stress that led to over-flowering/seeding was not our winter weather, but other stresses that occurred during the growing season of 2018.  For trees with smaller leaves, I suggest making sure they are adequately watered.  I typically recommend that trees and shrubs receive approximately one inch of water per week.  If Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, then I suggest setting up a soaker or drip hose at the drip line of the tree (i.e., the edge of where the branches extend) and applying whatever additional water is needed.  Affected trees should continue to receive water until they start to turn their normal fall color in the autumn.

And if all of the environmental stress-related issues aren’t enough, I’ve been getting inquiries about (and finally receiving samples of) what appears to be anthracnose on maples.  I expect to eventually see this disease on other trees as well.  Typical symptoms of the disease are brown to black, necrotic (i.e., dead), blotchy areas on leaves.  Our wet spring weather has been very favorable for this disease to develop.  Luckily, anthracnose tends to be a very cosmetic disease and typically causes little long-term damage to trees.  Cultivating the ability to ignore anthracnose symptoms and doing good fall clean-up of the leaves and removing them from your property typically are the best ways to handle this disease.

Phew, what a June!  Now, onward to July.  I have a feeling the deluge is going to continue!

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P.S.:  Brownie points for those of you who recognize the origin of the title of this month’s article.