Monday, June 9, 2014

Mysterious affliction killing beech trees

I recently received a rather disheartening note from John Pogacnik, biologist with Lake County Metroparks. The park district is in the extreme northeastern corner of the state and hard on the shores of Lake Erie. John, as many of you know, is an astute observer who spends much time afield.

In 2012 he began to notice some American beech, Fagus grandifolia, that were showing signs of ill health. Beech were already under assault in some regions by beech bark disease (BBD), which is a combination of introduced fungal and insect pests joining forces to attack and kill beech. BBD is widespread throughout northeastern North America, but doesn't seem to have (yet) caused widespread mortality in Ohio. Anyway, the new(?) issue detected by Pogacnik is not BBD.

A healthy American beech towers over the forest floor in Gross Woods State Nature Preserve, Shelby County. Beech can correctly be termed a keystone species. A great many other organisms are reliant on beech, and the trees fuel a forest ecosytem that is much richer than it would be without the trees. Beech typically occur in association with sugar maple, Acer saccharum, and beech-maple forests are a huge and vital part of the eastern deciduous forest ecosystem.

Mature trees typically form cavities that are used by Barred Owls, raccoons, flying squirrels and a number of other birds and mammals. The roots spawn the growth of one of our most specialized vascular plants, the beech-drops, Epifagus virginiana, which is parasitic on beech roots (without harming the tree). Beech also produce bounty crops of beech nuts some years, and this mast is an important food for numerous animals, including white-tailed deer, turkey, grouse, squirrels, wood ducks, chipmunks and many other creatures. Scores of moth - and some butterfly - caterpillars are also co-evolved with beech and depend on its foliage for food.

A forest deprived of its beech would be a far less diverse woodland.

John sent along some photos that show various stages of damage caused by the as-yet identified attacker. First signs of infestation involve dark striping on the green leaves as one looks into the backlit canopy. This can be seen well in the above photo.

The affected foliage then withers, dries, and yellows, as seen above and in the following two photos. Ultimately the diseased trees die, and John has already documented mortality and reports that many other beech appear on to be on their way out.

So far, the mystery beech disease has been detected only in a few locales in eastern Lake County and adjacent Ashtabula County. Cleveland Museum of Natural History botanist Jim Bissell has found afflicted old-growth beech in museum holdings in Ashtabula County. It appears this pest, whatever it is, can affect any stage of tree, from sapling to mature giant.
John has brought in experts from the U.S. Forest Service and the Ohio Division of Forestry. A number of forest health experts have reviewed the evidence and so far the culprit remains unidentified.
Please keep an eye out for apparently unhealthy beech trees, and those that exhibit the symptoms shown in the photos above. If you think you've detected this, please email John Pogacnik at:
If possible take photos of the leaves, and of course make notes as to exact location, extent of the infestation, and age/size of the impacted trees.


Lisa Rainsong said...

This absolutely breaks my heart. Thank you for reporting - we all need to watch for this. It's hard - and just so wrong - to imagine our NE Ohio forest communities without beeches.

C said...


Ryan Trimbath said...

Any updates? I know its spreading into Cuyahoga county. This could be devastating.

Gary said...

Good day sir. I am seeing this same malady in my woods here in extreme northeast Ashtabula county (Pierpont Twp). My beech, both small and large, are exhibiting these same symptoms. Please contact me with any new status, or if you have interest in pics or observing first hand. I am extremely concerned, and am ready to participate in any way I can!

Haans Petruschke said...

This is all over Lake County and northern Geauga. Including here on Gildersleeve Mountain We have been looking at it annually since John first found it. It is my observation that larger trees are unaffected and only branches or small trees in the shade show signs of the blight. It seems to take several years to kill a small tree. We first found it on Little Mountain 3 years ago and only this year are we seeing small trees dying.

Anonymous said...

Same symptoms found in Montville. (Geauga county) -- beech trees young and old. Is there anything we can do?

Lori Eby said...

Port Huron, MI.....My Beech is probably 20 yrs old. Beautiful tree. The last month the leaves have been turning yellow and falling off. Now the rest are brown. I see none of the issues on the trunk that I've read online. I thought it was because of the severe drought this summer, but now I'm not sure.

Barbara Dunham said...

We live in Concord Twp. in Lake County and our property, over 9 acres, is almost totally beech and hemlock. The beautiful old beech trees are the reason we bought the property over 20 years ago. They are all dying. Even the very old have this leaf disease which we started to notice perhaps 5 years ago. And it is affecting all ages from saplings to those over 90 feet tall. Truly very sad.

Anonymous said...

It is all over our primary forests at the 400-acre CWRU owned research property. We are doing studies on the impact of losing trees on soil conditions and light penetration. We are also observing and tracking changes on the storage vegetation. It is very tragic to see thousand of trees dying in font of our eyes.