Sudden Tree Death

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A rash of dying trees has been cropping up across the region and most of the calls are the same: “I had a healthy tree die! Is there a disease going around?”

The first, and quick, answer is there probably isn’t a disease at play. The second answer is there’s a cause lurking in the recent past, even if you couldn’t see it.

For many of these trees, our prolonged, severe rain last fall did damage that wasn’t observable. In many cases, the saturated soil was enough to deprive roots oxygen. When heat and drought kick in, trees affected in this manner will die suddenly.

Piled into the mix are the many challenges our landscape trees face upon planting: compacted soils don’t leave enough room for roots to grow, flooding happens as the result of nearby construction, or we pile mulch around the trunks to protect them. These stressed out trees now face death in another manner.

Stress sends signals: lichens will pop up on the bark, the leaves start changing color just a little too early in the season, or the tree produces an overabundance of fruit and flowers. Red flags such as mushrooms at the tree base can indicate decaying roots and the need for a certified arborist’s evaluation of the situation. Your stressed tree is a sweet target for diseases and insects to come in and finish it off.

The best stress management technique is to avoid it altogether. Take a soil sample and evaluate your planting site for sunlight and drainage. If you need help with the evaluation reach out to your Horticulture Agent. Choose the plant best suited to that location and check on it every so often. That way, you won’t miss the stress signals your tree sends you before it ups and dies on you!

Selena McKoy is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Harnett County.