A holistic approach to mitigating pathogenic effects on trees

The conventional ‘disease model’ approach to tree health focuses on identifying and controlling a specific pathogen (or pest) implicated as the causal agent of tree decline. Alternatively there are more holistic approaches in tree health that address a broader suite of processes occurring at the ecosystem level which may be predisposing the trees to infection by disease. Here I describe a holistic methodology that takes into account not only the proximal agents involved in tree decline, but also the age and structure of the forest, the abundance of cryptogams, the fire history, the acidity of the precipitation, the fertility of the soil, and the historical land care practices. This methodology is being implemented in the oak forests of coastal California which are experiencing high levels of mortality attributed, by most scientists, to the pathogen Phytophthora ramorum (aka sudden oak death). Evidence reported here of 1) acid rain, 2) acidifying effects of mosses and lichens, 3) the presence of acidic and nutrient deficient soils, and 4) a much lowered incidence of disease in recently burned areas, points to the likelihood that fire suppression has radically altered the structure and successional status of the forests, leading to enhanced competition and systemic acidification. Case study results of sick and diseased coast live oaks receiving holistic care, aimed not at treating P. ramorum but at reducing the environmental acidity, fertilizing the soils, and otherwise mimicking the effects of fire, show noticeable improvement in the health of the oaks after one year (78%, n=152), with further improvement in years two (84%, n=134) and three+ (81%, n=80). While the results do not indicate that the incidence of P. ramorum has changed significantly in the population of treated oaks, there is evidence that the sick, non-diseased trees are better able to resist infection.


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