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Rhizosphaera Needle Cast

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Fig. 1. Black, circular-shaped pycnidia rupturing through the stomata on the underside of a balsam fir (Abies balsamea) needle. The white, waxy plugs that occupy healthy stomata have been forced out with the pycnidia.
Fig. 2. Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) planted along a property border. Lower, interior branches are losing needles and the disease is spreading upward. The tree on the far left is a Norway spruce (P. abies), which is more resistant to the disease and shows no symptoms of infection.
Fig. 3. Diseased one- and two-year-old needles on a blue spruce (P. pungens). Needles on this host often appear purple before becoming brown to straw-colored.
Fig. 4. Diseased needles in the canopy of a Colorado blue spruce (P. pungens).

Pest: Rhizosphaera Needle Cast (Rhizosphaera kalkhoffii and other spp.)

Rhizosphaera needle cast has become a major disease of landscape spruce (and sometimes fir) in recent years. The disease is caused by several species in genus Rhizosphaera, and while the ecology and pathogenicity of these species are poorly understood, the disease is most often attributed to R. kalkhoffii. Research from the UMass Plant Diagnostic Laboratory has identified at least nine phylogenetic species in the northeast from six host genera (Picea, Abies, Tsuga, Pinus, Pseudotsuga and Cedrus). Of these nine Rhizosphaera species, the majority of spruce are infected by one particular species. Infected trees are rarely, if ever, killed by the disease alone, but Rhizosphaera is an important contributor to decline when other stresses are present (e.g. drought, stem cankers, and insect pests). In addition, the premature needle shedding leads to decreased aesthetics and/or function of the trees as a privacy screen.

Host Plants:

Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens), white spruce (P. glauca) and Oriental spruce (P. orientalis) are the most severely affected, while Norway spruce (P. abies) and red spruce (P. rubens) are more resistant to the disease. True fir (Abies), especially white fir (A. concolor), can suffer severe damage as well. Additional hosts in New England include pine (Pinus), hemlock (Tsuga), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga) and true cedar (Cedrus).

Symptoms & Disease Cycle:

Mild temperatures and prolonged needle wetness favor disease development. The pathogen invades susceptible needles through the stomata (pores used for gas exchange) and overwinters in diseased needles that have fallen to the ground or those that remain in the canopy. Beginning in the spring and lasting through the autumn season, spores are dispersed from infected needles by wind and splashing rainwater. Younger needles on interior portions of lower canopy branches are most commonly infected. In these locations air flow is limited, shade is more abundant and free moisture lingers on needles longer. Once needles are infected, symptoms may take 12 months or longer to become visible. When trees are stressed, symptoms of infection may develop more rapidly. On blue and white spruce, diseased needles often first appear purple, becoming brown to straw-colored. When the disease becomes well established in the lower canopy of a tree, Rhizosphaera then spreads upward in successive years, gradually leading to increased rates of premature needle shedding. In certain settings, mature trees can be severely defoliated, leaving only a small tuft of live foliage in the upper canopy. Pycnidia (small, black-colored fruiting bodies of the fungus through which spores are discharged) develop on the surface of infected needles and can be observed with the naked eye or a 10X hand lens during almost any season. They appear as fuzzy black, sooty dust. On spruce, the pycnidia are present on all sides of the needle, whereas on fir, they occur only on the underside of the needle.

Management:

Conifers vary in their susceptibility to the disease, so if disease pressure in the landscape is high, choose resistant trees such as Norway spruce for new plantings. The disease is more destructive on spruces planted in shaded settings or in tight hedgerows. Most spruces are shade intolerant and prefer full sun with no surrounding plants to thrive. Environmental stresses such as drought, deep planting and mechanical root injury contribute to disease severity. Additionally, opportunistic stem cankering fungi and insect pests also contribute to disease severity by reducing host vigor. When branches in the lower canopy die, they should be pruned out to limit the establishment and spread of opportunistic pathogens. Fungicides can be effective in certain cases but will likely have little impact once the fungus is well established in the canopy. Chemicals labeled for use in the landscape against Rhizosphaera include: azoxystrobin, chlorothalonil, chlorothalonil + thiophanate-methyl, copper salts of fatty and/or rosin acids, copper hydroxide, copper hydroxide + mancozeb, mancozeb, thiophanate-methyl and Phosphorous acid. Fungicides should be applied in the spring when new needles are half-elongated and then again once on regular intervals should wet weather. It should be kept in mind that infections can take place anytime during the growing season when environmental conditions allow.

Author: 
Susan Scheufele and Nicholas Brazee
Last Updated: 
Nov 10, 2016
Topics: 
Commercial Horticulture
Commercial Horticulture topics: 
Diseases