Queen palm tree disease

Thousands of palm trees are dying from a new disease

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The section of Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard that winds around the Hillsborough Bay is lined on either side by one of Florida’s most iconic plants, the palm tree.

Some are tall and spindly, necks so long and thin it seems impossible they could support an entire head. Others have verdant green limbs that stretch around their short trunks.

Among a canvas of lush palms, a few trees stand out. Their fronds are a sickly light brown.

Local forester Richard Bailey offers a prophetic warning: These palm trees are dying. So are many more around the Tampa Bay area and throughout Florida.

Just as worrisome: There is no cure for the disease that ails them.

Samuel Thomas spent his childhood looking at trees. Growing up in a rural part of Virginia, he spent many days walking through the forest with his grandfather and learning to identify the many different types of trees.

When Thomas first moved to the area about six years ago to attend the University of Tampa, he felt that the state’s identity was interwoven with palm trees.

But soon, he noticed: some were dying. He watched as the once-flowering palms withered into ravaged shells.

Thomas told people about it. They just rolled their eyes.

“They get tired of me talking about it,” he said.

So Thomas came to Florida Wonders.

“I have steadily noticed an increase in the amount of dead or dying palm trees, many of them in the city or right along highways,” Thomas wrote to the Times in late May. “They sit for months as eyesores before being removed and sometimes replaced.”

He ended his email with a plea for someone to recognize these dying trees.

“Has anyone else noticed the rise of dead palm trees?” he wrote. “Sadly, no one I know seems to notice.”

Thomas is right: Something is killing Florida’s palm trees.

The disease that afflicts these trees, lethal bronzing, has a name similar to the color it turns diseased leaves, a brown that slowly morphs onto each leaf until the whole tree dies.

The first characterized case of lethal bronzing occurred in Texas in 2002, according to Brian Bahder, an assistant professor of insect vector ecology with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension. But it wasn’t until 2006 that the disease was first identified in Florida.

The disease starts with a tiny insect. The aptly named plant hoppers feed on the tree’s sap and inject their saliva into its tissue through their “needlelike mouths,” Bahder said. When a planthopper feeds on an infected tree, they become a carrier of the disease.

Once a planthopper feeds on a healthy tree, the disease is instantly transferred. And just like that, a quick feeding process turns a healthy tree into a sick one.

Scientists first noticed a disease consistent with lethal bronzing after an onset of dying palm trees cropped up in Texas in the 1980s, Bahder said. Florida was already accustomed to lethal yellowing, a palm disease that originated in Jamaica and spread throughout the Caribbean. That disease lingered in South Florida, primarily affecting the Florida Keys and Miami-Dade, but it largely stayed there, mostly affecting coconuts.

Yet these trees in Texas looked different. When scientists tested them in 2002, they found the bacteria was not the same as lethal yellowing. At that time, the disease was named Texas Phoenix Palm Decline because it was thought to only affect Phoenix or date palms in Texas.

By 2006, scientists found that the disease had spread to other parts of the country, including Florida, where it was centered in Hillsborough County. Since then, lethal bronzing has trickled to 31 counties in Florida as far north as Duval and as far south as Broward.

Scientists are still trying to determine how the disease migrated to Florida. But they do know that it was first seen in Hillsborough.

“Tampa is kind of ground zero for this infection,” Bahder said.

When a tree is infected with lethal bronzing, the symptoms start slowly. First, the tree will drop its fruit prematurely. If there are flowers on the tree, those will slowly die, eventually browning the oldest leaves. There is no chance of a tree surviving once the spear leaf, or the youngest leaf of a palm tree, gets diseased.

It takes four to five months from acquiring lethal bronzing until death, Bahder said. There’s no treatment.

“Lethal bronzing is different than lethal yellowing at the molecular level,” Bahder said. “It always kills the palm when it gets into it.”

How many trees have died since lethal bronzing descended on Florida’s palm populations? It’s hard to quantify, Bahder said.

“I’ve heard some growers have lost full stands of palms and that runs them in the millions of dollars of loss,” he said.

But he estimated that “tens of thousands” of trees in Florida have been affected at this point.

Right now, there is one solution: Pump unafflicted trees full of an antibiotic, oxytetracycline, which can be used to treat acne and rosacea in humans, every three to four months.

The problem with that solution is it’s expensive and not permanent. To get a forester like Richard Bailey to inject your trees, it’s $50 per palm four times a year. If you have more than one palm, you’re quickly spending hundreds of dollars simply to prevent your trees from getting a disease they may never get.

Could there be a cure? Earlier studies of lethal bronzing found that pumping liters of “really pure” antibiotic into palms was enough to subvert the effects of lethal bronzing. But it’s not a surefire solution.

“I think it’s possible,” Bahder said. “We just need the money and the time.”

Richard Bailey is the kind of man who can look at a tree, point to its branches and immediately spout off its Latin name.

“Phoenix roebelenii,” he says quickly, pointing to a short palm that curves out of the ground, its brown, spiked edges breaking off into sloping green leaves. “Pygmy date palm.”

Bailey spends his days going from house to house and inspecting trees. It’s almost as if he can diagnose on sight.

On a recent day, Bailey was at Tampa resident Norman de Lapouyade’s house, traveling through a backyard that could rival a tropical forest. De Lapouyade asked Bailey to look at three trees in the back that are near death.

While he was there, de Lapouyade asked for Bailey’s opinion on this tree or that. Bailey had one recommendation: Plant a diverse variety of species. He pointed out an areca palm.

“This is a good alternative,” he said.

Bailey considers himself a preacher of a particular type of gospel: how to ward off lethal bronzing.

The city of Tampa has the same problem. They currently spend about $9,000 to inoculate 300 trees every four months. Next year, the city will have to invest more money into the program, said Eric Muecke, an urban forestry manager with the city of Tampa’s Parks and Recreation department.

Muecke calls inoculating trees a “proactive” move on the city’s part. Once symptoms of lethal bronzing appear, he says, the tree has only a 10% shot of surviving.

In the last three years, the city has planted about 140 palm trees per year, he said. But as more types of palms fall prey to lethal bronzing, Muecke said, it’s difficult to sustain a population of the trees Floridians expect in their back yards.

“We have to lean toward diversity when it comes to replacement because the diversity of our tree population is what makes it resilient to things like insects, diseases, even coming back after storms,” Muecke said.

When Bailey first saw a tree infected with what he thinks was lethal bronzing years ago, he knew it was something serious.

Although tests from the lab indicated the tree had a more common ailment, Bailey wasn’t convinced.

Since then, he has seen lethal bronzing take down his clients’ trees, his neighborhood’s trees and trees that line one of Tampa’s most luxurious streets. Because the disease isn’t carried from tree to tree but from insect to insect, there’s a randomness to it that makes it hard to combat.

“It’s a terrible disease,” Bailey said. “It’ll take one here and one over there and come back and grab one or two and then it won’t bother you for a year or two and it’ll come get another one. It doesn’t move in a big wave and kill everything as it goes—it’s even worse.”

Bailey has even seen the death of trees he’s injected with preventative antibiotics.

“It breaks my heart,” he said.

He develops a relationship with his customers and takes it hard when he loses a tree.

“Their palms become like mine,” he said. “They’re my babies, too.”

When he lost a recent palm tree at a client’s house on Harbour Island, he came home from work with a sullen look on his face. Bailey’s wife didn’t even have to guess what upset him.

“Another one of your palms die?” she said.

The answer was, of course, yes.

Explore further

Judge rules for Floridians who lost trees

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Diseases of Palm Trees: Some New Some Old

Biotic Diseases

Palms are primarily attacked by fungi. Although bacterial diseases do occur on palms they are very rare if not absent in California landscapes. Most biotic diseases of palms are somewhat rare and occur on stressed or declining trees. Although we do not have a huge number of new palm diseases, we are seeing more and more diseases occur on palms as their popularity and planting densities increase. Sometimes the same pathogen Gliocladiium vermoeseni for instance can produce different diseases on different plants. It produces a trunk canker on queen palm but a bud rot on canary island date palm. Sometimes the pathogen is highly specific. Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. canariensis only produces the wilt disease in canary island date palm.

Root Rots

Phytophthora spp

Root rots in palms are most often caused by anaerobic soil conditions. There are however pathogens that can take advantage of slow growing palms. Phytophthora spp. has been cultured by many laboratories from palms in California, however; this pathogen is not reported in the literature for most of our common species. Undoubtedly the disease is occurring, but it just has not been adequately described yet for the species we grow here.

Diagnosis is made by culturing the fungus from the roots. The signs of infection can not be seen with a hand lens. Negative lab or culture results are a problem because it does not necessarily mean that the roots did not die from Phytophthora, only that the fungus was not recovered. Some times this disease is confused with the abiotic disease because the symptoms of rotted roots look the same.

Although many practitioners use metalaxyl (subdue) as a nostrum for root rot cure, its efficacy has not been well studied in California. Drying out the root ball, adjusting the irrigation, prevention of flooding are all helpful in slowing the disease.

Armillaria spp.

Armillaria causes root rot of many ornamental plants and has been reported on Phoenix canariensis in California and on Washingtonia robusta in Florida. I have seen Armillaria mellea on Rhaphidophyllum hystrix in Santa Barbara. Although Armillaria diseases of palm are not common, they should also not be taken for granted. We should not plant palms in a landscape where Armillaria is a known problem expecting complete resistance to the pathogen. Palms do get the disease and it really is not yet clear which palms if any, are the resistant ones.

Diamond Scale

Host Range and Occurrence

Diamond scale is a disease caused in Washingtonia filifera by Sphaerodothis neowashingtoniae Shear. The disease is only reported in California and is especially problematic near the coast or in valleys with coastal influence. In a recent field study of amendments for palm planting, I observed that Washingtonia palms growing in Long Beach were much more susceptible to Sphaeordothis than those planted in Irvine CA. Although we see the disease in Riverside, it is much less common on young trees. I have examined native palms in California desert oases (Borrego Springs and Twenty Nine Palms) and found no evidence of the disease. However, the pathogen should occur in the native range of W. filifera as it is its only host. As Washingtonias have been used to a greater degree in landscapes the occurrence of hybrids (W. filifera X W. robusta) are in greater abundance. These hybrids are somewhat susceptible to the disease, so that it is not uncommon to find occasional fruiting bodies on a palm that resembles a W. robusta. Washingtonia robusta that have not hybridized with W. filifera are completely resistant to diamond scale, while the native W. filifera are susceptible. There is some problem here for landscapers who wish to ensure the purity of their palms and plant resistant specimens. We have found that nurseries are not producing pure stock. Many of the palms sold today as W. robusta have some W. filifera in them. Because these palms are wind pollinated and both species are common to Southern California, the purity of seed sources is suspect. The only way to obtain genetically pure W. robusta plants may be to collect seeds from their native range in Mexico.

Symptoms signs and progression of the disease

The disease is called diamond scale because of the diamond shaped ascothecia or ascus bearing structures that form on the leaves of affected palms. Contrary to common belief, this is not a “scale” insect, but the fruiting body of the ascomycete fungus mentioned above. The diamond shaped structures hold the sexual spores of the fungus. The asexual stage of the fungus (anamorph) has not been identified. Since not all the spore stages of the fungus are know, an accurate life history of the organism is impossible to discern. There are many gaps in the knowledge of this fungus and its associated disease in Washingtonia. We do not know the native range of its occurrence, its time of year for infection, the life span of the spores, optimal temperature ranges for the fungus or all of the events that lead up to a successful penetration and infection of new hosts. What little is known has been from casual observation of the pathogen and its associated disease.

The earliest symptom after infection is a water soaked lesion on the frond of an infected plant. A hard black stroma begins to form soon after this—the beginning of the fruiting body. The stroma enlarges and continues to gain size over a period of weeks to months. As the stroma gains size, the leaf tissues around it begin to yellow and if on the midrib of the frond, elongate forming long yellow streaks. Yellowing symptoms around nearby infections tend to coalesce. By the time all of this is noticeable, the leaves are usually mature and in a relatively horizontal or downward pointing position on the palm. Newly emerged leaves are seemingly unaffected. New leaves probably do not stay in their upright position long enough for the disease to develop on them. By the time the fronds are downward pointing along the trunk they have yellowed or turned completely brown. Palms unaffected by the disease appear to have about two times as many green leaves as extensively infected palms.

The reduction of leaf area and the slowed growth associated with diamond scale is debilitating and leads to reduced vigor of Washingtonia filifera. While it is not believed that diamond scale kills Washingtonia, it certainly predisposes these palms to attack from the pink rot fungus that can cause its death.

Control of the disease

Here again we have a vacuum of knowledge. While thiophanate-meythl (Clearys 3336) has been used against diamond scale, we have no hard data on its efficacy, timing of application or re-treatment interval. The same holds for copper based fungicides. Fungicide efficacy trials on this pathogen are badly needed. Although pruning would eliminate some inoculum, it is not known if pruning away old fronds is helpful in controlling the disease because we do not know how long the spores live in old leaves. The best control of diamond scale is to avoid planting palms with W. filifera genetics in coastal landscapes. If you should happen to inherit some W. filifera with the disease, it will always be there for you. I know of no cases were it has been eradicated from living palms.


Figure 1. Early infection


Figure 2. Ascostroma forming


Figure 3. Mature ascostroma on rhacis


Figure 4. Frond death from diamond scale and stunting/death from pink rot

Pink Rot

Although we do not have funding to produce this newsletter in color we have made these issues available on the web in a color format to better highlight the figures. You can visit the Ventura County Cooperative Extension Web site at: http://ceventura.ucdavis.edu/. If you would like to have a color hardcopy they are available upon request 805-645-1458.

In 1923, Biourge named and described the pink rot fungus as a flesh, rose, or salmon-colored fungus which in Belgium had injurious effects on Areca palms grown in greenhouses. By 1924, Chevalier reported the same fungus to cause death to Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, Howea forsteriana, Washingtonia filifera and Washingtonia robusta. Much of this early history of the disease is summarized by Bliss, 1938. Discussions of the disease lay dormant for many years until Feather and others, 1989, described pink rot as part of a disease complex along with Fusarium oxysporum on Phoenix palms. There has been little or no work on the disease since Feather et al. published their research.

The pink rot disease of palms is perhaps the most ubiquitous palm disease in the landscape. It is caused by the fungus Gliocladium vermoeseni, (Pennicillium vermoeseni) a member of the fungi imperfecti. The perfect stage of the fungus is not known. The biology of the pink rot fungus is amazing in that it can produce billions of spores while growing on a single plant. Thus its spores are always present where palms are grown so there is no way to avoid it. The fungus is a weak pathogen in that it requires a wound or other plant stress factors that enable it to infect. Pink rot also preys on old specimens that are growing slowly and become susceptible due to reduced growth rates of the main bud. It appears to be associated with palms growing in humid coastal areas. Although it can occur in inland valleys, it is more prevalent along the coast. The host range of the fungus is large, covering several genera and species of palms.

The fungus causes an interesting variety of diseases. On Queen palms (Syagrus spp.) it causes a trunk rot (Fig. 4). Sometimes the spores of pink rot can be found under the pseudobark of the palm (Fig. 5). In King Palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana), spores of the fungus can almost always be found under the clasping leaf bases. When injured (by premature removal of the leaf bases or by pruning wounds) the fungus can cause a trunk rot and death of the tree (Fig 6).

Pink rot can be controlled preventatively by avoiding wounds that allow entry of the fungus. It also helps to avoid planting susceptible species (such as Washingtonia filifera) along the coast. For old or valuable specimens, fungicides can be applied to prevent pink rot infections. Thiophanate-methyl is often used for this purpose. Since T-methyl is weakly systemic, some applicators believe it to be helpful therapy on already infected plants. There has been little or no research on the effects of newer fungicides on pink rot control.

Bliss, D.E. 1938 The Penicillium Diseas of Ornamental Palms. Paper 393, UC Citrus Experiment Station, Riverside CA.

Biourge, P.H. 1923. Les moisissures du groupe Penicillium Link. Etude Monographique. (The molds of the group Penicillium Link. Monographic Study.) La Cellule 33 (1)7-331.

ChevalierA. 1924. Observations de NN. N. Patouillard et Poupion. Rev. Bot. Appl. 4:108-109.


Figure 6

Fusarium Wilt or NOT??

Fusarium wilt is one of the most destructive palm diseases in California landscapes. It results in the death of Phoenix canariensis, is incurable and easily spread by common pruning practices. Since P. canariensis palms are large and often require a crane to install, the cost of removal and replacement (with a non-susceptible species) is exorbitant. The disease is widespread, affecting palms in landscapes wherever P. canariensis is grown and the density of diseased individuals seems to be increasing. Since a single Canary Island Date palm can cost over $10,000, this disease is taken quite seriously. Recent articles have appeared in many Southern California newspapers (many of these with misinformation about the disease) and the disease was recently featured on many network television channels as well as the cable news network. Big palms mean big money and big losses when they get sick–and this is news!

The disease was first identified in California by Feather, Ohr and Munnecke (1979) and later further characterized by the same group of researchers (Feather et al. 1989). There has been no further substantive research on the problem in California. Feather et al. showed that the disease is transmitted mechanically by pruning equipment and that the pathogen (Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. canariensis) can infect and cause disease in the date palm. They also showed that the disease can occur in hot inland valleys and desert regions such as Anza Borego as well as in coastal landscapes. Feather et al. (1979) further defined a disease complex between Gliocladium vermoeseni and F. oxysporum occurring particularly in coastal landscapes where the pink rot pathogen (G. vermoeseni) is prevalent. The main outcome of Feather and others work was that we learned that the disease is both soil and pruning equipment borne, that it is fatal and that fungicides were ineffective. Little has changed since these conclusions were drawn. Trees continue to die and there is no effective therapy for diseased trees.

For managers of Canary Island date palms, angst is severe when contemplating the diagnosis of Fusarium wilt. For many years plant pathologists and consultants have coached clientele to look for one-sided frond death as a symptom of the disease. Fusarium infected trees typically display this symptom and it has been very diagnostic. However, in a recent consultation, I examined fronds of Canary Island Date palms displaying one sided wilt without the presence of Fusarium. It is essential that preliminary diagnoses are verified by isolation and identification of the fungus from infected plant material.

There are other shoot blights and stalk rots reported in the literature caused by Diplodia phoenicum (Farr et al., 1995). Also, infection of the base of the fronds by Gliolcadium vermoeseni can cause similar one-sided frond death and vascular discoloration. In my recent examination of one-sided frond death in Canary Island date palms I isolated Dothiorella spp. and observed the same fungus later fruiting on the samples. This has been a particularly abundant year for Dothiorella caused diseases and it comes as no surprise that this fungus is hosted by Phoenix.

Although infection by Dothiorella or Fusarium can produce identical one-sided death symptoms (fig. 1a,b), there are differences which are obvious on closer inspection. When slicing through the rachis of the frond, Fusarium infected samples will show browning in scattered vascular bundles—the overall look is a slight browning of the otherwise white tissue. Dothiorella causes a severe browning of all the cortical tissues including the xylem elements giving a broad band of dark tissue (figure 2). If the samples are retained in a moist cool place, they will often form fruiting bodies (pycnidia) that erupt through the epidermis of the rachis (figure 3). Microscopic examination of the fruiting bodies and spores will confirm the diagnosis.

These observations are of course preliminary in nature and I will be looking at a lot more palms in the near future as well as conducting experiments on pathogenicity of Dothiorella on Phoenix. The main point is that diagnosticians should be cautious about diagnosing Fusarium wilt solely on the basis of one-sided frond death symptoms and vascular discoloration.


Figure 1a Dothiorella

Figure 1b Fusarium Wilt

Figure 2. Vascular browning of Dothiorella infection

Figure 3. Pycnidia of Dothiorella

Abiotic Diseases of Palms

As with other kinds of plants the abiotic diseases are perhaps more common than the biotic ones. This is largely due to mistakes in the planting, maintenance or treatment of palms in landscapes. Abiotic diseases result from an extremes of water, light, temperature or the chemical environment surrounding the roots of palms.

The trouble is the greatest in large transplanted specimens where the new planting site is highly modified from its original state and the palm is planted so that there is an excess of soil (sometimes several feet) over the rootball. When this soil change involves sand and organic matter placed over a heavier clay or loam soil the result is an anaerobic breakdown of the amendment, release of hydrogen cyanide and other gases and the death of palm roots and eventually death of the tree. See figure below.

Pruning is another practice that can lead to the death of palms through depletion of carbohydrates in the stem of the palm. As more and more leaves are removed the palm runs out of photosynthetic machinery to make its food, stored starch reserves are used up and the palm eventually dies.

The palms pictured above are transplants. All have been excessively pruned and the one on the far left is probably not coming back. As long as fronds are not brown, they contribute photosynthate to the tree and should remain. Over pruning palms causes them to lose vigor and decline.

When palms are grown closely they etiolate just like other monocots and produce long narrow stems. These trees when planted out can often break due to lack of the forest that once protected them and lack of the strength in their fronds necessary to resist wind. See the queen palm in the photo below.

Palms like all plants thrive in environments that they are capable of growing in. When changes are made that are drastic such as dramatic changes in light, moisture status, salinity, or temperature, they will express symptoms of damage. These symptoms may also suggest that the palms are now predisposed to attack from the biotic pathogens mentioned above and that a new disease may be on the horizon for that individual. We often see palms with pink rot after a cold winter and freezing temperatures. Good disease management requires an understanding of the proper growing conditions for the palms and the potential for disease from the pathogens that can attack it. Creating conditions favorable for palm growth but not pathogen proliferation will be helpful.

Labs that Analyze Palm Tree Samples

This list is not meant to be an endorsement of the following firms. These are labs known to me that conduct palm tree pathology analyses. Other labs may exist and may have equal capabilities. No endorsement of these labs is intended nor is any quality statement being made about labs listed here or not listed.

1.) Soil and Plant Lab, Santa Anna, CA

2.) Dr. Don, Ferrin, Riverside, CA

3.) Richard Cullen (for Fursarium oxysporium f.sp. canariensis id)
Florida Extension Plant Disease Clinic
University of Florida
Institute of Food and Agricultural Science
Building 78 Mowry Rd.
PO BOX 110830
Gainesville, FL 32611-0830
352-392-1795

5 Sabal Palm Tree Diseases and When it’s Time for Removal

Did you know the beautiful sabal palm tree is the state tree of Florida? If you live in the southeastern United States, odds are you have some in your yard or neighborhood.

While the trees are lovely and a great addition to most southern landscapes, they are still susceptible to several diseases.

Protect your trees and get informed on these 5 diseases that can affect your sabal palm trees. Read on to learn how to recognize them, what you can do to treat them, and how to know when it’s simply time to remove the tree.

Sabal Palm Tree Diseases

Like most palm tree varieties, the sabal palm tree is especially susceptible to fungus. The unfortunate truth is that even if you purchase and plant perfectly healthy palms, they could still become infected if the soil you plant them in has had a previous fungal infected plant.

Not to worry, here’s a breakdown of the diseases.

1. Fusarium Wilt

You may have seen some palm trees where the older palms have turned down and begun to yellow. Little did you know this isn’t a “look” but actually an indication of a potentially disastrous fungal infection of the palm tree.

This disease is called fusarium wilt.

Essentially, what happens to trees that contract this infection is that the fungus, known as Fusarium oxysporum, starts to grow inside the water-gathering areas of the plant.

This means the palm cannot gather water as it needs and ceases to grow over time, and it eventually dies. Another symptom of this fungal disease is when the palms on a tree yellow and die rapidly and leave just a few palms sticking up straight.

Of course, with a lack of water supplied to the tree, those remaining vertical palms will also fall.

Because this nasty disease enters palm trees’ roots via water pulled up from the soil, it’s best to have a professional inspect the soil you’ll be planting in to make sure no fungus exists.

Sadly, once a sabal palm tree contracts this fungus, there is little to do but have the tree removed and the soil replaced.

2. Phytoplasma Bacteria

The sturdy sabal palm, often referred to as the “cabbage palm,” is also vulnerable to a certain bacteria called “phytoplasma.”

This disease can be harder to pinpoint in your palm trees as the symptoms are also those seen in trees that may simply be fertilized poorly or trimmed too much.

Phytoplasma infection causes the central leaf spear to die before any other leaves. It also produces an abnormal amount of dying palm fronds at the bottom canopy. These look brown and dry.

If you think your tree or trees may be infected with this pesky bacteria, you may not need to chop them. The University of Florida has put together a document to help you identify the disease and properly diagnose it.

However, odds are you will still need to contact a professional arborist to come and treat the palm. They can provide oxytetracycline injections to help heal the sick tree.

3. Butt Rot, or Ganoderma Butt Rot

Ganoderma butt rot is a newer variety of palm infection, so you may have a harder time finding information on it. However, the signs of this infection are easy to identify.

This is also caused by a fungal infection that enters the palm tree through a hole, scrape, or scratch near the base, or “butt,” of the tree. This tricky disease is nearly impossible to spot until it’s about too late.

It will first make a visible appearance on the surface of your palm trunk in the form of a mushroom-like growth.

These “basidiocarp” growths are soft and spongy texture, like a mushroom. They will grow out in a horizontal pattern along the tree trunk.

Sadly, once you see these growths, it likely means the inside of the entire trunk has already rotted.

However, if you keep close care and attention on your sabal palms, you can identify butt rot before it becomes lethal. If you start to recognize signs of this fungus, call a professional.

Finding the right team to treat your palms can help care for the diseased trees so you can avoid a disappointing removal.

4. Bud Rot

You guessed it, bud rot is another form of fungal infection in sabal palm trees (or any other kind of palms). Known to arborists and scientists as “Phytophthora Palmivora,” this fungus occurs more often during warm, humid summer months.

Luckily, with this disease, your trees can be treated if you discover the sickness early on.

Here’s how to recognize it.

Bud rot manifests itself in the form of a discolored spear leaf. The second youngest leaf will then begin to turn yellow/brown and wilt.

You can judge how far along the infection is if the spear leaf easily pulls off the bud. This means the disease has developed quite a bit.

You may also notice that the bud has died as no new leaves grow. Look carefully as the disease may be present even if older leaves still look green and growing.

5. White Powder or Mildew

Have you noticed powdery white mildew growing along the leaves of your palms? This disease, as well as others that are similar and often referred to as Rust or Black Spot, can easily be treated with chemicals if caught early enough.

Typically, you can treat this sort of infection yourself as most garden centers or nurseries will carry the needed chemicals to fight the growth and sickness.

You can also prevent the spreading of this and other fungal diseases among plants by carefully cleaning all pruning and gardening tools if you’ve been working with infected palms.

Sterilize tools between projects as fungus is especially easy to transmit from plant to plant.

When to Call for Help with Removal

While most sabal palm tree diseases are easy to identify and treat with the proper chemicals, knowing when a tree has reached its limit and when it’s wise to remove it is essential.

If you think your palm has reached a point where professional help is needed, contact us. Or, check out our blog post on 5 signs of a dying tree and when to call for help.

Fusarium Wilt of Queen Palm and Mexican Fan Palm1

Monica L. Elliott2

Summary

  • As the name implies, Fusarium wilt of queen palm and Mexican fan palm is primarily observed on Syagrus romanzoffiana (queen palm) and Washingtonia robusta (Mexican fan palm or Washington palm). When this disease first appeared, it was called “Fusarium decline.” That disease name is no longer valid.

  • The disease is caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. palmarum.

  • This disease is similar to Fusarium wilt of Canary Island date palm, but the pathogen subspecies and host range are different.

  • The leaf symptoms include a one-sided chlorosis (yellowing) or necrosis (brown due to death) of the leaf blades, with a distinct reddish brown or dark brown stripe on the petiole and rachis. The internal petiole and rachis tissue is discolored. Eventually, the entire leaf dies.

  • The disease symptoms normally appear first on the oldest (lowest) living leaves, and then progressively move upward in the canopy until the palm is killed. Palms often die quickly, within two to three months after initial symptoms are observed. Due to the quick decline, the necrotic leaves do not necessarily droop or break and bend down around the trunk, but remain relatively rigid.

  • The only other disease that the leaf symptoms could be confused with is petiole (rachis) blight.

  • It is not known exactly how the fungus spreads so widely in the landscape, but wind-blown spores are strongly suspected as a primary method. Local transmission of the fungus from palm to palm is possibly caused by contaminated pruning tools.

  • There currently is no cure for this lethal disease.

  • Laboratory confirmation of this Fusarium wilt pathogen requires molecular techniques.

Introduction

Fusarium wilt is very host specific, with the primary hosts being Syagrus romanzoffiana (queen palm) and Washingtonia robusta (Mexican fan palm or Washington palm). It is caused by Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. palmarum. When this disease was first observed, it was referred to as “Fusarium decline.” However, now that the exact pathogen is known, the more correct disease name is “Fusarium wilt.” The full name of “Fusarium wilt of queen palm and Mexican fan palm” was given to this disease to distinguish it from the other Fusarium wilt disease that occurs on a palm in Florida, Fusarium wilt of Canary Island date palm (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pp139). This disease primarily occurs on Phoenix canariensis, and is caused by F. oxysporum f. sp. canariensis (note the different subspecies name).

Pathogen and Hosts

Fusarium wilt of queen palm and Mexican fan palm is caused by the fungus F. oxysporum f. sp. palmarum. The fungus causes a vascular wilt of the palm. Specifically, it obstructs the xylem (water-conducting) tissue, which results in the symptoms of leaf desiccation and death described below.

The fungus produces short-lived spores (macroconidia and microconidia). It also produces spores called chlamydospores that live in the soil and plant tissue for long time periods (usually years).

The primary hosts of the pathogen are Syagrus romanzoffiana (queen palm) and Washingtonia robusta (Mexican fan palm or Washington palm). While the pathogen has also been observed affecting Canary Island date palm and the “mule” palm (× Butyagrus nabonnandii), a cross between Syagrus romanzoffiana and Butia odorata, this has occurred very rarely.

Thus far, the disease has been documented in Florida and the Houston-Galveston area of Texas. It is widespread throughout Florida. Affected palm trees have been observed mostly in mature landscapes. However, the disease has been observed on juvenile palms (palms without trunks) in a few nurseries. Because the diseased palms decline so quickly, the diseased nursery palms are often not marketable.

Symptoms

As with most diseases, Fusarium wilt symptoms are progressive. For queen palms, there will be at least one leaf with some or all leaflets discolored on only one side of the rachis. The leaflets will be either chlorotic (shades of yellow) or, more often, a shade of brown due to desiccation or death. The leaflets on the opposite side of the rachis will be a healthy green color (Figures 1 and 2). This very distinctive symptom is often referred to as “one-sided wilt” or “one-sided death.” A reddish brown or dark brown stripe will be visible on the petiole and rachis of the affected frond, on the same side where the first dead leaflets appear. This streak may run the full length of the petiole and rachis, or just a portion of it. Internal discoloration will be observed in cross sections of the discolored petiole and rachis (Figure 3). Eventually, the leaflets on the other side of the rachis will turn brown and the entire leaf will die.

Figure 1.

Beginning leaf symptoms of Fusarium wilt: The lowest leaflets on the left side of this queen palm leaf are beginning to die, and there is a reddish brown stripe moving from the petiole into the rachis.

Figure 2.

Over half of the leaflets on this queen palm leaf have died or are dying, and there is a reddish brown stripe along the entire left side.

Figure 3.

This cross section of an affected leaf petiole/rachis illustrates internal discoloration due to fungal infection.

For Mexican fan palms, there will be at least one older leaf with a mixture of healthy, chlorotic, and necrotic leaflet segments in the leaf blade. As with the queen palm, there will be a reddish brown or dark brown stripe on the petiole, with a corresponding internal discoloration in the cross section (Figure 4).

Figure 4.

This Mexican fan palm leaf blade has half green and half dead or dying leaf segments. Note the reddish brown stripe on the petiole; it is on the same side as the dying leaf segments in the blade.

For both hosts, the disease symptoms normally begin on the lowest (oldest) leaves and move up the canopy, progressively killing younger and younger leaves. The spear leaf is the last leaf to die. Death from Fusarium wilt occurs very quickly, with palms often dying within two to three months after initial symptom development. Due to the quick decline, a very characteristic symptom of this disease is the overall canopy appearance. The necrotic leaves do not droop or break and bend down around the trunk, but remain relatively rigid (Figures 5, 6, and 7).

Figure 5.

Queen palm exhibiting typical late-stage symptoms of Fusarium wilt. The entire canopy is necrotic, but leaves are not drooping or hanging down around the trunk.

Credit:

Reproduced by permission of Brooke Burn, UF/IFAS Extension

Figure 6.

Queen palm exhibiting typical late-stage symptoms of Fusarium wilt. The entire canopy is necrotic, but only a few leaves are hanging down around the trunk.

Figure 7.

Mexican fan palm exhibiting typical symptoms of Fusarium wilt. Over half of the leaves have died, all in the lowest part of the canopy. The dying leaves have reddish brown stripes on the petiole.

Diagnosis

The initial field diagnosis can often be made based on the symptoms described above, especially if the symptoms are typical. No other fungal disease kills the entire palm canopy so quickly. In fact, if the disease is progressing very quickly, there may only be one leaf with typical symptoms because the leaves are dying so rapidly. However, the initial symptoms of Fusarium wilt look exactly like the symptoms of petiole (rachis) blight (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pp145), especially in Mexican fan palms. The latter disease is not a true vascular wilt, but the resulting leaf symptoms of petiole (rachis) blight are the same as Fusarium wilt. However, palms seldom die from petiole (rachis) blight. Therefore, it is essential to confirm which disease is affecting the palm with a laboratory test.

Another disease that can kill queen palms is Texas Phoenix palm decline (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pp163). However, the spear leaf (the youngest leaf that has not expanded) dies very early in the disease process if Texas Phoenix palm decline is the problem, whereas the spear leaf is the last leaf to die if Fusarium wilt is the problem.

Ganoderma butt rot (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pp100) will cause palm canopies to die from the bottom to the top, but this is usually a slower process than what is observed in Fusarium wilt, and the canopy will not include leaves with the one-sided death typical of Fusarium wilt.

To confirm the field diagnosis, a laboratory must isolate the pathogen from the affected leaf tissue and then conduct a molecular test on the isolated culture. There are numerous F. oxysporum isolates that do not cause disease, but that are still associated with palm material. Unfortunately, it is not possible to separate pathogenic isolates from nonpathogenic isolates based on their appearance in culture. Thus, isolation of a fungus that looks like F. oxysporum does not confirm the field diagnosis. The fungus growing on the culture plate is then subjected to a molecular test that can confirm if the fungus is F. oxysporum f. sp. palmarum.

Contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office (http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/map/index.html) or the UF/IFAS Plant Diagnostic Clinic (http://plantpath.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/plant-diagnostic-center/) for complete details on correct sample submission procedures and cost of a laboratory diagnosis. The best leaf to sample is one where half the leaf is still green and the distinctive reddish brown or dark brown stripe is present on the petiole/rachis (see Figures 1, 2, and 4), and where there is internal discoloration of the petiole/rachis (see Figure 3). Do not place the leaf in plastic. Place the sample in a paper bag for hand delivery or a cardboard box for shipping.

Disease Management

Once the palm is affected by this disease, there is no cure. Currently, there is no method for preventing this disease, either. Based on observations in Florida, the pathogen appears to be spread primarily by airborne spores (conidia) moved by wind, and possibly birds or insects.

Once the disease is established in a landscape or nursery, it is thought that the disease may be transmitted from palm to palm via leaf-pruning equipment. The fungal pathogen is located in the vascular tissue of the leaf. Equipment used to remove leaves from an infected queen palm or Mexican fan palm (chain saw, lopper, pruning shear, hand saw, etc.) will have fungus-infested leaf material (wood dust, plant sap) remaining on the blades. If equipment is not cleaned and disinfected, the next queen palm or Mexican fan palm pruned by this equipment will be exposed to fungus-infested leaf material. It is important to note that a palm could be infected but appear healthy (symptomless) because the disease has not developed to the point that leaf symptoms are being expressed.

Pruning should be restricted to removal of dead or dying leaves only. Severe pruning weakens palms and may increase the risk of pathogen transmission. Pruning should be viewed as a risk factor for Fusarium wilt disease transmission and not as a benefit to the palm.

Table 1 provides a list of suggested materials that can be used as disinfecting agents. Brush the tool blades clean of debris before placing in the disinfectant solution. For chain saws, it is recommended that they be taken apart and both the chain and bar soaked. By using multiple pruning tools, one tool can be soaking in the disinfectant solution while the other tool is used for pruning. The disinfectant solution should be replaced at least every 10 trees or every 2 hours. Rinse tools with clean water before pruning.

Again, this is a disease without a cure. In a nursery situation, diagnosis of this disease effectively destroys the crop, as the plants are not marketable and must be destroyed. In a landscape situation, the palm will eventually die and have to be removed. In both situations, the diseased palm(s) should be removed and destroyed immediately.

As long as the disease is restricted to the canopy and has not moved into the trunk, only the diseased canopy should be incinerated, placed in a landfill or composted properly. If this is not possible (as is the case in many Florida counties), then be sure the palm canopy is not chipped for mulch in the landscape. Chain saws and other tools used for removal must be brushed free of plant material and disinfected as described previously. If the trunk is clean (no signs of discoloration), it could be chipped and recycled as mulch. Stumps should be ground or removed to prevent colonization by the fungus that causes Ganoderma butt rot (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pp100).

Based on other Fusarium wilt diseases of palms, it is recommended that a queen palm or Mexican fan palm not be planted back into a site where one of these species has died from Fusarium wilt.

Selected References

Elliott, M. L. 2012. “First report of Fusarium wilt caused by Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. palmarum on Canary Island date palm in Florida”. Plant Disease 96:356.

Simone, G. W. 1998. Prevention and management of palm diseases in Florida’s landscapes. Plant Pathology Mimeo 98-4. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Tables

Table 1.

Suggested materials and soaking times for disinfecting pruning tools

Material

Percent solution

Soaking time

Household bleach (e.g., Chlorox®)

25% (1 part bleach + 3 parts water)

5–10 minutes

Pine oil cleaner (e.g., Pine Sol®)

25% (1 part cleaner + 3 parts water)

5–10 minutes

Rubbing alcohol (70% isopropyl)

50% (1 part alcohol + 1 part water)

5–10 minutes

Denatured ethanol (95%)

50% (1 part alcohol + 1 part water)

5–10 minutes

Note: The above materials were shown to be effective in eliminating F. oxysporum from the wood dust or palm sap trapped on pruning tools (Simone 1998). It is suggested that the solution be replaced after 10 trees or every 2 hours. Rinse the tool with fresh water after disinfecting. Other potential disinfectants are trisodium phosphate or quaternary ammonium salts. The latter is recommended at a 5% solution, soaking for 5 minutes (Smith, Smith, and Clements 2003).

Footnotes

This document is PP278, one of a series of the Plant Pathology Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date June 2010. Revised August 2013 and January 2017. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

Monica L. Elliott, professor, Plant Pathology Department; UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, Davie, FL 33314.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county’s UF/IFAS Extension office.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.

Palm Diseases — Fusarium Wilt

Fusarium Wilt
a new disease of queen palms and Washingtonian palms

A queen palm killed by fusarium wilt fungus looks like it has been freeze dried. Affected fronds do not droop.

There is a new disease of queen palms (Syagrus romanzoffiana) that is moving into the northeast Florida. It was first discovered in 2003 in south Florida and has also infected Mexican fan palm (Washingtonian robusta). It is a fusarium fungus that kills the affected palm. Within two to three months of infection, the leaves become desiccated. Curiously, the leaves remain erect and do not droop down around the trunk.The affected queen palm has a freeze dried look.

There is no known cure. Little is still known about how the disease is spread. We believe the primary mode is through infected pruning tools. But there have also been cases when clean (sterilized) pruning tools have been used and these pruned palms have also become infected.

We therefore believe there could be wind transmission of fusarium spores to freshly cut frond stubs. Therefore only dead fronds should be pruned so no freshly exposed vascular tissue that is susceptible to infection will be left exposed after pruning. That is why it is extremely important take special precautions about who prunes your queen palms and Washingtonian palms, how they prune and how they disinfect their pruning saws.

Hand pruning saws are best because they are easier to disinfect. Chain saws should not be used to prune fronds from queen palms and Washingtonian palms because chain saws cannot be properly disinfected. And again only dead leaves should be removed. According to Don Hodel, Cooperative Extension Environmental Horticulturist Los Angeles County, “Unpruned trees never have Fusarium or Thielaviopsis diseases. Prevention through sanitation and more conservative leaf pruning and trunk skinning is the only way to control these diseases.”

It can be difficult to distinguish between fusarium wilt death and cold damage on queen palms. The above tree was damaged and possibly killed by extended temperatures in the mid-20’s in north Florida.

The question has been asked, “Can you replant a queen palm in the same location where a palm died of fusarium wilt?” Keep in mind that fusarium is a soil-borne pathogen and there can be spores in the soil that may reinfect new queen palms and Washingtonian palms. So for now until more information is available, we do not recommend replanting a queen palm or Washingtonian palm in the same location.

The Washintonian palm (Washingtonia robusta) tends to collapse when infected with fusarium wilt.

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