Sick Trees

March 14, 2011

Something that I do a fair amount of is deal with what I call “sick trees”. Since I’m somebody that spends a lot of time learning about tree biology, mechanics, and needs, I find these calls to be some of my more interesting work.
Usually when someone wants me to look at a tree from a health perspective, it is because they have either noticed something unusual on or near the plant, or the tree just generally looks bad.
While visible things that affect trees usually are a lot easier to identify and diagnose than the hidden causes of tree decline, they can still be a varied lot. Also, just because they are easier to identify, that doesn’t necessarily translate into something that can be cured or stopped.
A lot of the different kinds of fungi that have tree killing capabilities are fairly obvious when you know what you are looking at, but most of them are difficult to treat with any success. Fortunately, there have been some pretty decent advances made in fungicides over the last few years that give us better treatment options than we had just a few years ago.
The most difficult diagnoses are the trees that are failing or declining for unknown reasons. After talking with the homeowner and determining as best possible the age of the tree and everything that is known about its history, and the history of the site it exists on, if all that information doesn’t point to the problem, then the fun begins.
Think about it, when you are trying to figure out what is wrong with a tree, you are working with a dynamic organism that can’t tell you what happened or “where it hurts”. Further, when you are dealing with some hidden problem, all you have to go on are the symptoms. In fact, even the symptoms you can see may actually be caused by some secondary problem that developed as a result of the original issue, but still aren’t the real root cause of the trouble. It doesn’t take long to figure out that a love of puzzles is a helpful character trait if you plan on dealing with declining trees.
As much as I do like this kind of work, there is a lot of frustration that goes with it. First, very often the actual original cause of decline is not going to come to light. In these cases, what you will end up doing is working with the symptoms that you can detect, and additionally treating for things that you might suspect but can’t prove. Secondly, trees that have declined to the point where the problem becomes apparent, are already in trouble and the success rate to “cure” them is not nearly high enough.
In fact, trees are very different in how they handle problems and diseases. When you work with a tree and try to bring it back to health, you don’t really “cure” the plant so much as you just give the tree the help it needs to return itself to health. Most of the things we do with sick trees are really centered around making sure the proper nutrients and water are available while, as much as possible, halting the further advancement of treatable problems such as fungi and harmful bacteria.
If you can apply a fungicide that halts the growth of some virulent fungi and at the same time properly water and fertilize the tree so that it can contain the existing fungus, that is what passes for a “cure” in the tree world. The parts of the tree that were harmed by whatever the problem was will not really “recover”, what happens is the tree just basically grows over and past those damaged sections.
Another thing that can be frustrating about working with trees that are in trouble is the fact that they are almost certainly going to take a very long time to respond to any kind of treatment. There are a few problems that can be quickly remedied in trees, but very few. Most of the time, whatever caused the problem that has become visible in the canopy has been going on for a long time, and just as it took a long time to manifest, it is going to take a long time to turn around. If the live oak in the front yard has been declining for three or four years, or worse, is just starting to show the damage from the house addition that you added three years ago (it’s quite common for live oaks to hide construction damage for years), then it is probably going to take a lot of work and time to return that tree to any real health.
The number one golden rule to remember when dealing with unhealthy trees is that the best time to start working with it is right away. If you have a tree that is showing signs of being in trouble, the quicker you start working with it, the better your chances of good results and a positive outcome. While not every tree is salvageable, and sometimes it is just better to cut your losses and remove the “sick” tree, making that decision sooner rather than later will save you a lot of time, money, and frustration.
The next KWKC Green Team workshop titled Annuals and Perennials will be held at 2 P.M. Saturday, March 26th at Willow Creek Gardens, 1820 South Treadaway, in Abilene.

If you have any landscaping, landscape maintenance, or tree questions you would like answered in this column, submit them care of editor@sweetwaterreporter.com or info@BrokenWillow.com.

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