Root rot spoiling many N.C. Christmas trees, but local tree lots untouched

Tony Casey • Dec 4, 2013 at 7:52 AM

Tree farmers in western North Carolina are finding something a lot less pleasant than presents underneath their Christmas Trees this season.

Phytophthora root rot, a widespread fungus-like disease that causes a slow, or sometimes rapid death, of the above-ground plant, is wiping out fields of Christmas trees, mostly in Fraser firs, in farms in the western North Carolina area.

Although many of the tree lots around Johnson City get their trees from that area, many tree options are still available.

Steve Ayers, owner of Roan Valley Tree Farm off Okolona Road, said that because of the planting conditions on his farm and because of what they offer, he’s been able to avoid any difficulty with root rot. In his business’ 57 years, he said they’ve garnered enough experience to avoid such problems, although he does recognize it as a serious problem for other tree farmers.

“We have no problem here,” Ayers said. He said his farm does get some trees from North Carolina, but from places in the higher elevations where root rot isn’t much of an issue. In the lower elevations, in areas where the soil type changes more frequently, he said, are the spots where root rot issues occur.

Heavy levels of rain, like those this region has experienced this year, also cause the disease to set in, as well as opposite conditions where the soil might be extremely dry, and stress the tree.

Ayers said he knows people in North Carolina who have had to abandon fields of 50,000-100,000 trees because of widespread rot.

David Sprinkle, an arborist at Hedgewood Tree Care, said the disease is below the ground, so when a tree is cut, it’s often, but not always, separated from the disease. He said the tree doesn’t wear any signs of the disease, other than it making the tree wilt and die at a more rapid rate. If people were uprooting tainted trees or moving them from soil in which there was root rot, Sprinkle said there would be a chance of spreading the disease and possibly knocking out an entire nursery.

As for heading the disease off in advance, Sprinkle and Ayers said tree farms could be sending their soil off for analysis. Sprinkle said the procedure usually costs around $15-$30 through the University of Tennessee, and should be a must for tree farms. Because some of the trees are on a 13-year rotation, if the soil isn’t tested, the farm could experience a big loss in product and revenue a few years down the road.

The amount of clay in the East Tennessee area, Sprinkle said, is a big reason for problems in growing plants and trees.

“East Tennessee soil is not that conducive or the best to begin with,” Sprinkle said in regards to planting trees.

Ayers said he’s been doing it long enough at his three-generation farm that they know how to handle prepping their farm for trees and it shows in the farm’s ability to yield trees each season.

According to Bartlett Tree Experts, root rot is prevalent in many species of tree and plant, including azalea, rhododendron, boxwood, hemlock, mountain laurel, dogwood, white pine and more.

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