Which Ohio Trees Will Survive Next Few Decades?

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The Mayor of Akron recently issued a warning to citizens to be on the lookout for a fungus that kills oak trees. Oak Wilt is a condition that affects red oak and pin oak trees and has been found in the city. But it’s only one of the scourges that could spell doom to trees in Northeast Ohio.  

You can start in northwest Akron where tall oak trees line both sides of Palisades Drive, creating a cathedral effect of leaf canopies overhead. City of Akron arborist Jon Malish stands next to one with almost no leaves left. It’s dying of Oak Wilt.

A healthy red oak on the left and an oak dead from Oak Wilt on the right  [Mark Urycki / ideastream]

“This was a three-week process. Three weeks ago we noticed one branch had brown leaves on it. Nothing had fallen yet but as you can see in the canopy there is practically nothing is left,” said Malish.

How deadly is this?

Akron arborist Jon Malish in the shadow of a dead red oak tree. [Mark Urycki / ideastream]

“It’s pretty deadly. Anything in the red oak group – red oak, pin oak, black oak – once they are infected there’s really not anything we can do for it. White oak group has some resistance built to it. The only thing we can do is preventative measures with fungicides.”

Malish said residents can do that for their own trees but the city won’t try it on city property.

“No, it’s quite expensive,” he said.                

The neighborhood around Palisades Dr. in Akron is graced with 75 percent red or pin oak, all susceptible to Oak Wilt. [Mark Urycki / ideastream]

Malish wants residents to avoid pruning red oak trees between April 1st and October 1st because the beetles and fungus can infect the wounds during the warmer months.

Oak Wilt was first found in Wisconsin in 1944.

But Northeast Ohio is ground zero for a more mysterious disease that’s been killing small beech trees, the ones with silver smooth bark on which people love to carve their names.  

You can see it at Hell’s Hollow Wilderness Area in Thompson.

Lake County Metroparks’ biologist John Pogacnik points to the shriveled leaves with dark and light green. 

Dark and light green stripes is the tell-tale sign of Beech Leaf Disease  [Shane McKeon / ideastream]

“It’s just a little darkening in between the veins of the leaf. That give a striped appearance,” Pogacnik explained.

What’s causing that?

“That, we don’t know,” he said. “I found the disease in 2012 and that year we had a drought so I thought it may be drought-related.”                

Lake Metroparks biologist John Pogacnik fears that hemlocks and beech trees may be gone from Lake County forests in 10 years. Sugar maple trees are also facing an uncertain future due to earthworms.  [Shane McKeon / ideastream]

Pogacnik called in some experts from the US Forest Service.

“The weird thing about the Beech Leaf Disease is that we checked all over the world where they have beech and no one else has ever seen anything like it,” he said.

So Pogacnik wasn’t just the first to see it in Ohio, he was the first to see it anywhere in the world.

So does it get the name Pogacnik’s disease?

“Heh, Beach Leaf Disease so far.”                        

The experts suspect the disease is caused by a virus.

Pogacnik believes extreme weather in recent years is putting stress on trees, making them weaker and more vulnerable. One thing he knows is Beech Leaf Disease is spreading rapidly.

“At Chapin’s Forest one year, 20 percent had some stage of the disease, the following year 70 percent, and now 100 percent,” Pogacnik said. “In three years it spread that quick.”

Do you think a large tree is going to shake this off?

“It doesn’t look like it. It looks like it’s going through them and right now we don’t know anything about it. We just see it getting worse and the general thought is it will kill them eventually, but we’re hoping that’s not the case.”

Pogacnik fears that within 10 years Northeast Ohio will have no beech tress left.

Beech Leaf Disease has spread as far south as Stark County already, but it’s moved particularly far east, into Pennsylvania, almost to New York State.  That leads to speculation it’s carried by insects that get blown in the wind. 

The thought of a major tree die-off brings to mind the American Chestnut Blight. It came into the US from Japan in 1904. By 1940 virtually all the mature chestnut trees - as many as 1 billion - were dead.

Portage Parks's Bob Lange came across a rare mature American chesnut tree in newly acquired park land.  [Mark Urycki / ideastream]

But there is some good news. In some newly acquired woods of the Portage County Park District, one mature chestnut was found. The Park’s Natural Areas Steward Bob Lange says park officials were hiking the property just after they bought it. 

“We just happened to look down and notice some burrs on the ground. I thought, ‘Boy, that sure looks like American Chestnut.’ And sure enough we all looked up and there it was,” Lange recalled.

The tree is about 18 inches in diameter, maybe 30 feet high.

Few people get a chance to look up at leaves from a mature American chestnut tree. This one is in Kent.  [Mark Urycki / ideastream]

Lange points out it appears to have some blight damage on its lower bark.

“It’s trying to heal over that. And that’s where some of the debate was that ‘Boy, maybe it has actually been trying to fight that off. It has some perhaps resistance.’ But it’s started to heal over that wound.”   

So they’ve treated it with a fungicide to help it.

“If we can get it pollinated this will be a source of viable seed for the 100% true American chestnut,” Lange said. “And for just that I think it’s worthwhile in this case to try and take care of this tree.” 

Scientists are trying to cross breed or genetically alter surviving chestnut trees to be resistant to the blight.  

Many of the pathogens affecting Ohio trees came from invasive species or insects imported from other countries. Because of them and global warming, biologists expect Ohio forests will look a great deal differently in the coming decades.

 FOLLOW-UP with Amy Eddings




Tracking the Trees on Ideastream


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