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Prevent Oak Wilt

Prevent the spread of oak wilt in Texas this spring

AUSTIN, Texas – Oak wilt is one of the deadliest tree diseases in the United States, killing millions of trees in 76 counties of Central, North, and West Texas, and we can help prevent it from spreading.

Prevention is key to stopping the spread of oak wilt. Any new wound can be an entry point for infection, including those produced by pruning, construction activities, livestock, land or “cedar” clearing, lawnmowers, string trimmers, and storms.

“With wounds being the best entry point for the disease, landowners should avoid pruning or wounding trees from February through June,” said Demian Gomez, Texas A&M Forest Service Regional Forest Health Coordinator. “And no matter the time of year, to decrease the attractiveness of fresh wounds to insects, always paint oak tree wounds.”

The fungus Bretziella fagacearum causes Oak wilt. The fungus invades the xylem – the water-conducting vessels of the trees – and the tree responds by plugging the tissues, resulting in a lack of water in the leaves, slowly killing the infected tree.

All oaks are susceptible to oak wilt. Red oaks are the most vulnerable and can die in as little as one month after being infected. Live oaks show intermediate susceptibility but can spread the disease quickly due to their interconnected root systems. White oaks are the least susceptible, but they are not immune to infection.

Oak wilt can spread two ways – above ground or underground. This time of year, the disease is spread above ground more rapidly in late winter and spring because of high fungal mat production and high insect populations. During this time, red oaks that died of the disease last summer and fall may produce spore mats under the bark. With a fruity smell, these mats attract small, sap-feeding beetles that can later fly to a fresh wound of an oak tree and infect it, starting a new oak wilt center.

The second way oak wilt can spread is underground by traveling through interconnected root systems from tree to tree. Oak wilt spreads an average of 75 feet per year by the root system. It occurs primarily in live oaks and is responsible for most spread and tree deaths in Central Texas.

Oak wilt is often recognized in live oaks by yellow and brown veins showing in leaves of infected trees, known as venial necrosis. It may be challenging to diagnose oak wilt due to the seasonal transitioning of oak leaves in the spring – when evergreen oak trees shed their old leaves while simultaneously growing new ones. However, the signs of oak wilt can be seen on most leaves when a tree is fully infected. Landowners should contact a certified arborist if they are unsure if their tree is infected.

“For red oaks particularly, one of the first symptoms of oak wilt is leaves turning red or brown during the summer,” said Gomez. “While red oaks play a key role in establishing new disease centers, live oaks and white oaks move oak wilt through root grafts.”

To stop the spread of oak wilt through the root system, you need trenches placed around a group of trees, at least 100 feet away from the dripline of infected trees and at least four feet deep, or deeper, to sever all root connections.

Another standard management method for oak wilt is through fungicide injection. However, the injections only protect individual trees injected, and the best candidates for this treatment are healthy, non-symptomatic oaks up to 100 feet away from symptomatic trees.

Other ways to help prevent oak wilt are:

  • Plant other tree species to create a variety in the area.
  • Avoid moving oak firewood before it is seasoned.
  • Talk with your neighbors about building a community prevention plan for oak wilt.

Infected red oaks that died should be cut down and burned, buried, or chipped soon after discovery to prevent fungal mats that may form the following spring.

Not only is saving oak trees important for our ecosystem and health, but oak wilt can also even reduce property values by 15 to 20 percent.

Some cities and municipalities, including Austin, the City of Lakeway, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Round Rock, have oak wilt programs with municipal foresters dedicated to managing the disease. Texans can also contact their local Texas A&M Forest Service representative with any questions about this devastating disease.

For more information on oak wilt identification and management, visit https://texasoakwilt.org/ or Texas A&M Forest Service’s website at https://tfsweb.tamu.edu/