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Why Are So Many Oak Trees Dying This Year?

dead oak tree
Rapid decline of an oak tree in an area with a restricted root zone. Photo: D.L. Clement, University of Maryland Extension

This season the Home and Garden Information Center has received a tremendous number of questions on rapid browning and death of many of our oak trees in urban landscapes and forest situations.  Even though it would be convenient to point to a single reason for this dieback it is most likely a combination of weather, disease, and insect factors.  

A logical starting place to look for an explanation would be the often-overlooked gradual health decline of our trees due to old age, restricted root zones, soil compaction in work zones, old trunk wounds, storm damage, poor pruning, urban stress such as reflected heat and drought, and opportunistic diseases and insects. These decline factors can extend over many years, leaving trees to try and cope with less than ideal growing conditions.

Last season these conditions were further worsened by the excessive rainfall that continued into this spring which resulted in standing water at many locations that had low spots, compacted soil, or water collection points. Flooded soils and saturated root zones further weakened trees by allowing root pathogens such as Phytophthora a chance to reduce the overall number of healthy roots. 

Flooding near oak trees, Spring 2019. Photo: D.L. Clement, University of Maryland Extension
Dying oaks in the same location as above, Fall 2019. Photo: D.L. Clement, University of Maryland Extension

In general, red, black, chestnut and white oaks don’t tolerate poorly drained soils. Trees can tolerate some reduction in root health, as long as temperatures remain cool, water demands aren’t high, and adequate time is allowed for root regeneration. As a root system loses the ability to support the tree’s water needs, dieback will occur especially in the upper branches.  

When the high summer temperatures began this season in mid-July and the low rainfall extended into this fall these conditions accelerated the loss of tree vigor and resulted in sudden browning of tree leaves and canopy dieback. Compromised tree health often allows pathogens such Armillaria and Hypoxylon to invade, which further accelerates dieback and death. In addition, opportunistic insects such as Ambrosia Beetles and Two-lined Chestnut Borer, will attack tree trunks and continue tree demise.  

Evidence of a boring insect infestation. Photo: D.L. Clement, University of Maryland Extension

There are a few positive steps that may alleviate some tree stress. It is very difficult to reverse decline in stressed oaks so select trees that still have green foliage and irrigate near their bases during this period of high drought stress. Even minimal amounts of water can help recovery and prevent drought stress before winter dormancy. Practices that open up compacted soils to increase drainage and raise soil oxygen levels (e.g., vertical mulching) will often help as well.  

As we continue to receive information about dying oaks across the state, we still have many unanswered questions. We will continue to collect data on tree species, age, and pest occurrence, in coordination with other agencies across Maryland.

By Dr. David L. Clement, Principal Agent, University of Maryland Extension, Home & Garden Information Center and Dr. Karen Rane, Director, University of Maryland Plant Diagnostic Laboratory

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