What’s happening to our trees and shrubs?

September 4, 2013 

It’s easy to take our trees and shrubs for granted, enjoying their shade or blooms and not noticing when something is wrong. But sometimes change is inescapable. A couple of weeks ago our neighborhood was shocked to see our ash trees suddenly turning brown and the streets filling with dropped leaves. We’ve been dreading the emerald ash borers which could eventually devastate the streetscape, but not expecting the sudden dropping of their leaves. The Missouri Department of Conservation’s area forester, Chuck Connor, tells me that any tree not adequately watered during the past two summers is now under severe stress. It’s a cumulative effect, and it’s imperative to really soak our trees now so that they can overcome this current dry spell and survive another year.

The drought has been especially devastating for conifers such as white pines, which have died by the thousands due to environmental stress. Evergreens are also susceptible to a number of diseases and pests, and few varieties are native to this region, so I consider them an expensive gamble. If you have a conifer that’s not looking well, check www.mdc.mo.gov or have a professional arborist determine whether it can be saved.

Just as our bodies are vulnerable if we’re already stressed, our trees are suffering more then usual from pests and viruses. Missouri oaks have been dying due to Hypoxylon canker and borers. Various borers and beetles are also affecting birch, hickory, elm, walnut, maple and other hardwood varieties. Weakened by the droughts, they often aren’t able to withstand these pests. Treating or removing infected trees may help curb the epidemics but can be expensive. Since the monetary value of a landscape tree can be thousands of dollars, the loss is to be avoided if possible.

Shrubs aren’t immune, either. Our well-established lilac bush is very sick; it may or may not recover next spring. Many burning bushes have lost leaves due to mites. Another potential threat to area landscapes – considering the abundance of roses like “Knock Outs” – is the rose rosette virus. The appearance of one or more tall, odd-looking canes is the first clue. They may have fewer or more thorns than the rest of the bush. The definitive sign of rosette virus is dark red, gnarly clumps called “witches’ brooms” that are taller than most of the rest of the plant. Once identified, the rose bushes must be removed and destroyed as the disease spreads through the atmosphere and can infect your neighbors’ plants as well. It was hard to face, but we recently removed six beautiful, still-blooming roses from the front landscape and replaced them with dwarf crape myrtles. Until there’s a cure, sadly, all roses are endangered.

What’s the best advice in response to all this doom and gloom? Value diversity, water until the fall rains come, be vigilant for signs of pests or diseases and react appropriately, with the help of reputable websites and professionals. I always find late summer a little depressing as the end of the growing season approaches and fewer flowers are in bloom, but if we deal with plant problems now we’ll be rewarded next spring.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go shovel more ash leaves out of the street before they clog the drains.

Carol Rothwell is a member of the Lee’s Summit Beautification Commission and a Lee’s Summit resident.

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