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Capital Region arborists confront beech leaf disease

European beech (Fagus sylvatica)
European beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Arborists are sounding the alarm about a microscopic invasive worm devastating one of New York's most common tree species.

Beech Leaf Disease is a mysterious malady that is contributing to a localized significant decline of beech. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation writes “beech is one of the most common forest species, particularly valued in the forest for hosting nesting sites and providing nuts for birds, black bears, and other wildlife.”

The DEC says BLD can kill beech trees of all ages in 2 to 7 years, though younger trees appear to die more quickly. The DEC says if you see BLD symptoms in an area, avoid moving firewood from that location.

Joe Oszust is an arborist with Davey Tree company of Albany. He says the nematode apparently originated in Asia.

"It initially was found in Japan, where it was, it was causing problems with the Japanese Beech, but to a much lesser extent, the damage was very minimal. But when it came to the United States, the beeches here have apparently no resistance to it," said Oszust.

First identified in Ohio in 2012, the disease has also been found in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Rhode Island.

"This is a full year feeding nematode, many of the other nematodes attack roots," Oszust said. "So what we see is damage to the leaves and takes the form of, of sort of like blisters in between the veins that get discolored, they look chlorotic, which means a lack of nitrogen or yellow. And then as time progresses, the leaf gets sort of leathery, and the tree starts to make less food because there's less photosynthesis going on. And the tree begins to decline."

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation says this year BLD has been discovered in 12 new counties including Oswego and Herkimer. It is widespread across Westchester and Suffolk counties, and was recently discovered in the Adirondacks for the first time, on the southwestern edge of the park.

Oszust says there is no cure. "There is no therapeutic or preventative treatment for this," Oszust said. "But certainly, keeping the tree healthy through fertilization, proper mulching, those are all things that that are going to help the tree in the event that it does get attacked by the beech leaf disease."

Oszust says the first symptoms always develop at the bottom of the tree and it is not yet understood how BLD is transmitted. He believes good mulching practices can help keep trees safe. According to the DEC, symptoms of BLD appearing in the leaves include striping, curling or a leathery texture. Oszust says if you do notice symptoms, don't rush to cut the tree down.

"This is a very new disease and, and in our industry, things are emerging all the time, different treatments, and hopefully at some point we find we find some treatment for it," said Oszust. "What I wouldn't do though is if you are in an area where you know that there are trees infested. (You) definitely don't want to, you know, move smaller trees to be planted somewhere else. Obviously, you'd just be spreading the nematode."

If you have questions about your trees, email photos and location information to foresthealth@dec.ny.gov. Or you may call the Forest Health Diagnostic Lab at (518) 478-7813

View DEC's BLD flyer about disease symptoms and how to report (PDF).

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.