I recently experienced an unusually baffling situation with a lacey bark elm tree. It is 5 years old and was gorgeous two months ago. Now, it is totally brown. It literally went from a full canopy of green to a thin canopy of brown, shriveled leaves. It was painful to see.
So what did I do? First, I looked carefully at its branches and bark. The branches were flexible, so still alive. Then I saw a flurry of movement and upon closer observation, I noticed insects I’d never seen before. I did some research and discovered they are red-headed ash borers. They look like a cross between a yellow jacket and a large ant. The interesting thing is that these insects usually don’t appear until a tree is dead or dying.
Next, I called an arborist, a specialist in the care and maintenance of trees. I needed to know a couple of things: whether it was too late to treat and save the tree and what happened to bring the larva of the ash borer to bore holes in the bark in order to reproduce.
The arborist had some good news. The tree wasn’t dead since it had green right under the bark as well as into the deeper tissue. The arborist also had some bad news. He had only seen this situation a few times before and couldn’t guarantee the tree would live. But he gave me a treatment plan I could do myself — insecticide applied at the trunk area, and another type of insecticide applied to the ground underneath and out to the drip line. He also suggested a soil amendment around the tree to see if this would add nutrients and lessen the alkalinity to help the tree recover.
The arborist was sure the tree had come under stress, which is what attracted the ash borers. The ash borer was only the symptom of a damaging and usually lethal problem called Texas Root Rot, sometimes referred to as “cotton root rot.” The tell-tale signs were spot on. The tree had gone through a growth spurt, it appeared during the hot part of the summer, and the brown leaves were attached and hanging on the tree.
I’m not confident the tree will live, since this fungus is one of the most lethal for susceptible plants, and rarely responds to treatment. But it’s not dead yet, so I will treat it and pray for the best. If this, or something similar, has ever happened to you, you must decide whether the tree is valuable enough to treat. If it is, money must be spent and effort put in, to give it the best shot at surviving. Before making that decision, consult with an arborist to get the facts needed to make an informed decision.