Older oak trees have been plagued with health problems and are dying in large numbers throughout Maryland. Why? Both researchers and homeowners are asking the same question. The tree diagnostic laboratories have identified an assortment of diseases and pests on the dying trees. Yet no single, conclusive problem is killing them all. It remains a mystery. A few facts that everyone agrees on are these: We have never had so many mature oaks in our forests, so maybe this is the way they naturally decline. We experienced unusually wet summer weather in 2018 and 2019. Researchers believe this could have compromised the relationship between the mature oak roots and the fungus on which they depend for water absorption. As a homeowner, you can try to alleviate oak drought stress. If we experience a July/August drought, watering the area around the drip line of a tree can reduce stress. The objective would not be to stimulate growth with volumes of water, but instead to sustain the tree during the drought period. If your oak is in a lawn and you feed the turf once a year, that will suffice. Visit the Home and Garden Information Center website for a summary article.
Joyce Browning Horticulturist, Master Gardener Coordinator Video credit: Bethany Evans Longwood Gardens Professional Gardener Program Alumni; CPH
This season (2019) 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.
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.
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