Monday, May 20, 2024

Beech Leaf Disease Sweeps Across Princeton

Princeton is losing its beech trees.

We were feeling celebratory, having just completed a successful corporate workday in Herrontown Woods, when I happened to pass by this small branch of a beech tree along the red trail. The leaves were strangely contorted, with dark green stripes. I had heard distant rumblings about a disease of beech trees, but had managed to keep my head in the sand until that moment. 

Back home, diagnosis was but a google's search away. Similar images popped up on the screen, along with the name: Beech Leaf Disease. Tree maladies typically come with an acronym. Emerald ash borer is EAB. The dreaded asian longhorned beetle, which they've had some success keeping from spreading across the eastern U.S., is ALB. The Bacterial Leaf Scorch that afflicts pin and red oaks is BLS. Now there was a new one: BLD. 

For those unfamiliar with the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), it's a native tree related to oaks and chestnuts, with beautiful smooth gray bark. They can get very big and live for centuries. Thousands of them grow in Princeton, in the preserved forests along the Princeton ridge and on slopes above the Stony Brook. 

The "grandifolia" in the latin name refers to the leaves, which are larger than the leaves of European beeches. This photo shows some healthy leaves (on top) and the curled, darker green leaves that have been contorted by nematodes overwintering in the buds. Beech leaf disease is caused by these nematodes--tiny worms spread by birds or the wind. 

Viewed from beneath, the infected leaves show a curious striping of dark and light green. 

During a subsequent hike in Autumn Hill Reservation, I was astonished to find nearly all the beech trees affected--their leaves contorted, their crowns beginning to thin. Beech in Rogers Refuge are showing symptoms, and Mountain Lakes preserve is reportedly also affected. According to online sources, essentially all of our beech trees will be dead within ten years. The news comes exactly ten years after the first emerald ash borer was found in New Jersey, with the skeletons of ash trees still haunting our woodlands.

According to this map, on the Holden Arboretum website, the disease was first spotted near that arboretum in Ohio in 2012, and has spread in all directions, most rapidly eastward.

According to the Maryland Extension website, the microbe causing the disease is Litylenchus crenatae mccannii, a subspecies of a nematode found in Japan. As one would expect, the only beeches resistant to this particular nematode are those that coevolved with it in Japan. 

The Holden Arboretum website mentions a chemical treatment that is being tested. It is a compound that is sprayed on the tree in the fall just as the nematodes are moving from the leaves down into next year's buds. Unfortunately it is highly toxic. The snail's pace of tree research compared to the rapid development of Covid vaccines caused one friend to ask, "Where is science when we need it?" 

The loss of a tree species from the canopy has all sorts of impacts on wildlife. Ash, elm, and maples bear abundant seeds early in the season to feed on. Two of those three have been largely lost. Nut-bearing trees provide food in fall and winter. Gone from wildlife diets are chestnuts, bacterial leaf scorch is reducing oak production of acorns, and it now looks like beech nuts will become very rare. Websites detail the ecological web of connection and dependence that is unraveled by the loss of a tree species. 

A post last year by the Brandywine Conservancy in Pennsylvania provides a particularly chilling description of what is in store for eastern forests:
"As the disease progresses, leaves will become smaller in subsequent years, and it will seem like autumn in the summer as infected leaves brown and fall from the tree, resulting in thinned crowns and branch dieback. Eventually, BLD will cause beech trees to abort their buds, leading to the death of the tree. Young beech tree saplings die within 2–5 years of infection, while mature trees live a bit longer. Death from BLD is likely accelerated in beech trees stressed by drought or Beech Bark Disease, which is a different infection that involves scale insects and fungi."

Here's a writeup I found on beech bark disease, which also poses a mortal threat. 

I encourage people to visit favorite beech forests in the area sooner rather than later, to appreciate the now threatened beauty of this singular tree. Over the next few years, if you are fortunate enough to find one that remains healthy while others around it succumb, you should let people know. The Holden Arboretum site provides someone to contact.

Yesterday evening, I visited the fabulous congregation of European beech off of Elm Lane on Constitution Hill in western Princeton. The many trunks appear to all come from the original massive trunk in the middle. 

Seen from a distance, they appear to be separate trees, but more likely were either branches that touched the ground and took root, or sprouts from the original tree's massive root system.

You can see how some of the trunks still have a sort of navel, where the original branch from the "mother tree" was cut off.

Its leaves, smaller than those of the native beech, were  showing early signs of the disease.

Some of Princeton's most spectacular native beech trees grow in the Institute Woods. That will be my next stop--that and a hidden valley between the Princeton University chemistry building and Washington Road, where I found a mixed forest of 200 year old trees, part of the great American forest cathedral that, in unspeakable sadness, loses its towering pillars, one by one.

Here is how I concluded a recent letter to the editor in the Town Topics: 
Outrage is often triggered by the intentional cutting of trees. The highly visible spotted lanternfly caused a stir, yet has proven relatively innocuous. The biggest threats we face are neither visible nor intentional. The emerald ash borer is hidden behind bark. Nematodes are microscopic. Our machines’ climate-radicalizing carbon dioxide? Unintended and invisible.

There is so much joy still to experience, for me particularly in Herrontown Woods, and yet in the larger workings of the world, so much to grieve.

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