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Sunday, March 14, 2004

Readying for Sudden Oak Death to be Catastrophic

This is a little story with a big meaning for American forests -- the seeds have been sown wide and far for a catastrophic outbreak of sudden oak death, which will take pristine wild oak groves and reduce them to firepits and gnarled stumps. The oak is of course one of our greatest trees, and for those with a more spiritual (or pagan) side, it is holy to druidic and wood nymph types. For the rest of us, it is just a noble species, providing swaths of shade and majesty on summer days the way in which few other trees can match.

Interestingly, for those who are in to media analysis and the way in which mainstream sources fail to capture context and so pervert messages for majority audiences, look at the way in which NBC television has run this same story below. Gone is any of the threat and reality of what has happened from the Azuza sales, replaced instead by the news standard "officials are looking into it."

Via: SF Chronicle

Ornamental plants in the largest nursery in California -- a place that distributes flora around the country -- have been infested with spores from the tree-killing disease known as sudden oak death, it was revealed Wednesday.

The discovery of Phytophthora ramorum in camellias at Monrovia Growers in Azusa (Los Angeles County) means that the highly contagious disease has been transported to other states and may have been introduced into highly susceptible oak forests in places like the southeastern United States.

The news hit like an earthquake as forest pathologists from around the world gathered Wednesday at Sonoma State University for a California Oak Mortality Task Force meeting.

"It's a huge nursery with thousands of plants that went all over the place," said Susan Frankel, a U.S. Forest Service plant pathologist who is working with the state Department of Food and Agriculture on the problem. "Hundreds of nurseries are now going to require inspections. Hundreds of thousands of plants will have to be destroyed. We're very concerned for the forests of the United States, for the nursery industry and trade. It's terrible."

The news of yet another infestation was a major setback after two years of progress fighting the fungus-like scourge that has killed tens of thousands of California's majestic oaks. The widening swath of destruction seemed to have slowed in the past two years, especially in the Bay Area, and an effective phosphite treatment was developed and approved for use on private trees.

But there were signs of trouble last year when Phytophthora ramorum, which is the scientific name for the disease, was discovered in camellias in a small nursery in Washington.

It meant the disease had spread to another state -- but infestations had been found before in nurseries and isolated, so it wasn't yet a camellias were eventually traced back to Monrovia. Testing of plants there confirmed Monday that six varieties of camellias were infected, the first such infestation in arid Southern California.

The major concern is that the 500-acre nursery does $30 million annually in out-of-state shipments, Frankel said, and many of the plants sent out over the past year may have been infected. That means they may serve as hosts and spread the disease to wildland areas.

Steve Oak, a forest pathologist for the North Carolina office of the U.S. Forest Service, said a great many of Monrovia's plants are shipped to the southeast, including places near the southern Appalachian Mountains, where Northern red oak trees make up 80 percent of the forest canopy in some places.

"We have a pathway that was theoretical before, but is now likely," he said during a break in Wednesday's conference. "The threat is very real." It is especially troubling in that region because the oaks there replaced the forests of American chestnut trees killed in one of the worst blights in world history.

The chestnut blight, first discovered in 1904, killed some 3.5 billion trees in 50 years, essentially wiping out the entire species.

Steve Lyle, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said lab samples are being taken and analyzed to determine how extensive the Monrovia infestation is. "Surveying is ongoing at other nurseries in California as well to see if the fungus has spread even further," Lyle said. Katie Bloome, the spokeswoman for Monrovia Growers, said shipments of all plants that are susceptible to sudden oak death have been halted and she is confident the problem can be eradicated. "We're on top of it," she said.

Meanwhile, forest pathologists from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands outlined during the conference how Phytophthora ramorum has spread from nursery plants to forested areas. It seems to be especially deadly for beech and red oak trees in Europe.

Curiously, the microbe in Europe -- which was recently also found in the Pacific Northwest -- is a different mating type from the one that dominates in the United States. Scientists are desperately trying to keep the two types apart for fear that they will mate and create an even more virulent form of sudden oak death.

Dave Rizzo, an associate professor of plant pathology at UC Davis, said the latest news shows how important it is to stay focused and keep up the fight. "We've had a couple of years where we haven't had much die-off, probably because of the weather," Rizzo said. "But remember, chestnut blight took 50 years to kill every tree. So we still need to be cautious."

Posted by Richard
3/14/2004 09:41:47 PM | PermaLink