Thursday, August 20, 2009

Landscape - Bacterial Leaf Scorch

Hot weather in mid-summer is the time that you often see bacterial leaf scorch on infected trees. The following is more information.

Bacterial leaf scorch (BLS) is a disease with a name that definitely understates the impact on infected trees. It causes far more than leaf scorching. The bacterial pathogen can slowly kill mature trees in 8-10 years.

Here's what you may see. About mid-summer, infected trees appear to have environmental leaf scorch. The same trees appear healthy again the next spring, but scorching returns each summer, becoming progressively worse over 5 or 6 years, thinning the canopy and eventually killing the tree. I have seen the problem on Illinois oak trees, but other trees may also host this disease.

Bacterial leaf scorch is an infectious plant disease caused by a bacterium called Xylella fastidiosa. The pathogen is systemic, living only in the xylem. The most frequent hosts of this disease in the U.S. include elm, oak, sycamore, mulberry, sweetgum, sugar maple, and red maple. At the University of Illinois Plant Clinic we have confirmed BLS on pin, red, shingle, bur, and white oaks. Kentucky pathologists report BLS on pin, red, scarlet, bur, white, willow, and shingle oaks; silver, sugar, and red maples; sweetgum, sycamore, planetree, hackberry, American elm, and red mulberry. Look for scorch symptoms that occur in early summer to midsummer and then intensify in late summer. The scorched leaf edges or tissue between veins may be bordered by a yellow or reddish-brown color, but not in all cases. The symptoms may occur first on one branch or section of branches and slowly spread in the tree from year to year. The pin oaks we have seen infected have general thinning. It is one of those situations that you hope will be better next year but only gets worse.

There is no cure for this disease. Some have tried injections with oxytetracycline, but none have shown more than disease suppression with this antibiotic. Since the pathogen is in the xylem, cleaning pruning tools before moving to another tree is important to reducing spread of the disease. Xylem-feeding leafhoppers and spittlebugs are thought to spread the bacterium in landscape trees. Transmission between trees through root grafts has been reported.

Unlike most other bacteria, Xylella fastidiosa cannot be isolated in the lab. However, it may be confirmed using serological techniques. ELISA (enzyme linked serological assay) testing can be done and is used to help identify the Xylella pathogen. The most reliable test results occur in August and September, possibly because the bacterial population in trees is higher late in the season.

Bacterial leaf scorch on oak. Photo by Randy Cyr, Greentree,

Information reprinted from an article by Nancy Pataky in the current edition of the Home, Yard, and Garden newsletter from the University of Illinois

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