The Villainous Ways of Verticillium Wilt

Depressing looking, isn't it?

About half way through the summer, two small trees in my garden suddenly started to look droopy. One was an Eastern Redbud, and the other a red variety of the same – a Forest Pansy. The droopiness started at the tips of the branches and gradually (and quickly) moved down the entire branch. Before too long, the leaves were brown and crispy. Still other branches looked entirely unaffected, and completely healthy. Puzzled, I did some research and found two possible reasons; kanker and Verticillium wilt. I found no evidence of kanker, but still needed confirmation that it actually was Verticillium, so I took some pictures and sought the advice of a very knowledgeable plantswoman at one of my favorite nurseries (Garden Fever in Portland, OR). Sadly, she confirmed my suspicion – the trees were doomed.

Rampant Verticillium Wilt

The Verticillium is a waterborne genus of fungi that can affect over 300 species of plants. Plants absorb the fungus through their vascular systems, specifically through the xylem (as opposed to the Phloem – the other type of vascular tissue). The xylem cells can be thought of as a bundle of straws – water and nutrients flow vertically through them. The fungus blocks the cells, leading to a reduction in water and nutrients – the plant wilts. When looking at an affected plant, this selective, upward direction of the xylem cells is displayed in how the plant wilts; hence the completely dead-looking branch with a beautifully healthy-looking one right next to it. The overall effect is very strange. If you cut an affected branch, a telltale sign of Verticillium is that the xylem has turned a dark brown in the midst of the surrounding sapwood. I’m not fond of using chemical remedies, but even if I was, there is nothing that will help this kind of infection. The advice is simply to cut the affected branch off. Many trees will happily re-sprout  over and over again, but the wilt will always return, gradually spreading throughout the tree. I have read that the disease progresses gradually, but in the case of my trees, it was a full-blown assault. More than half the tree looked dead within weeks! Rather than opting for a continuous misconfiguration and vain hope for miraculous improvement, I decided to make short of their suffering. When I cut my trees down today, the brown ring circling the heartwood was unmistakeable. It was Verticillium, alright…

The telltale brown ring...

Once the fungus is in your soil, it is there to stay. It remains strong for several years, and you can’t put any susceptible plants in place of the one you just removed. Luckily there are many good lists on the Internet, listing the good as well as the bad. Good replacement plants include grasses, palms, bananas, gymnosperms (Ginko’s, conifers and cycads) gingers and alliums, as well as some of our most beloved spring bulbs. Since my trees were planted for privacy and an attempt to create some shade, I’m going to replace them with other trees or larger shrubs.  Despite the resignation, sadness and disappointment I felt when digging them out, there is always a parallel feeling of anxious excitement when the prospect of an empty space with good compost arises. Those who know me and my obsession know that there are always homeless plants sitting around in pots around my crowded yard, waiting for a permanent home. This, my friends, is opportunity! Not sure yet what candidates will be the lucky winners this time around, but time will surely tell.

About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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8 Responses to The Villainous Ways of Verticillium Wilt

  1. Great post, Anna, although sad that you had to lose your two young trees. I’ve been lucky so far in that I haven’t lost anything to verticillium wilt. Some of that is probably due to my penchant for slightly offbeat varieties, but as I have both a dogwood and several maples, I’m not in the clear.
    I’ll look forward to seeing what you replace the trees with!

  2. annamadeit says:

    Thanks! Any good ideas, Jane? Do you think a Stewartia would make it? Fingers crossed that you don’t ever have to see it attack your garden – it was so sad…

  3. Stewartia is a lovely small tree and apparently VW resistant. Another possibility is crape myrtle. They come in tree form or, more naturally, a vase-shaped large shrub. Beautiful bright flower trusses this time of year and exfoliating mottled bark as they mature make them interesting all year.

    My experience with resistant varieties is so-so: we have three Pyracantha ‘Mojave’ I planted because they were purported to be fireblight resistant. Each of them shows signs in the spring anyway, so it seems no species is immune. Good luck!

    • annamadeit says:

      That’s a good one too! I’m such a geek, I actually have a young one of each, which could move into the empty space! The crape myrtle was a freebie from the National Arbor Day Foundation. It arrived as a 10″ stick, and is now about 10′ tall, which I guess is probaby an indication that it is the tree form. Mind you, I also have a couple of bananas. Decisions, decisions…

  4. annamadeit says:

    Over a year has passed since I wrote this post. I can now happily report, that both the Crape myrtle and the Stewartia seem happy in their new spots, so so far, so good! Yeay! 🙂

  5. Pingback: The small house, the big tree, and the clean slate | Flutter & Hum

  6. David Brogan says:

    There are ways to deal with verticillium wilt. A soil drench with Actinovate or Mycostop is useful. Larger trees can be injected with Fungisol. Here in Massachusetts, the folks at the state lab call redbud, deadbud, because they are so susceptible to cankers and wilts. The chances are your redbud came from the nursery with the disease.

    • annamadeit says:

      Deadbud? Haha – so sad, but so funny! Thanks for posting the remedies – very good to know. Although, since I took the Deadbuds out, I haven’t seen anything else afflicted, so perhaps you’re right in that the disease came with the plants. Thanks for commenting, David!

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