Bacterial leaf scorch (BLS) is a systemic disease caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which invades the xylem (water and nutrient-conducting tissues) of susceptible trees. It is most commonly seen in pin, red, shingle, bur, and white oaks, but can also affect elm, oak, sycamore, mulberry, sweetgum, sugar maple, and red maple. Xylem-feeding leafhoppers and spittlebugs spread the bacterium from tree to tree. Transmission between trees through root grafts has also been reported. There is no cure for this disease; it is chronic and potentially fatal.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The first noticeable symptom is premature browning of leaves in mid-summer. Symptoms worsen throughout late summer and fall. Leaf margins turn brown, beginning with the older leaves and moving outward, spreading to leaves toward the branch tip. In most, but not all infected trees, browned, dead areas of the leaf are separated from green tissue by a narrow yellow border. The browned leaves may drop from the tree. Infected trees leaf out normally the following year, with leaves on a few more branches turning prematurely brown in late summer. Symptoms become progressively worse over a period of 3 to 8 years until the entire tree turns brown prematurely. The lack of green, chlorophyll-producing leaves year after year leads to twig, branch, and limb death due to continual defoliation.

Bacterial leaf scorch can easily be mistaken for oak wilt or Dutch elm disease, except for the following:

  • The cycle of bacterial leaf scorch repeats and becomes worse over a long period of time. Oak wilt and Dutch elm disease are both capable of killing susceptible trees within a matter of months.
  • There is no streaking of the sapwood with bacterial leaf scorch.
  • In bacterial leaf scorch, the leaf browning develops from the leaf edges and works toward the mid-vein, whereas browning tends to happen in a more overall, uniform manner with oak wilt and Dutch elm disease.

Bacterial leaf scorch can also be mistaken for drought and heat stress. However, damage by bacterial leaf scorch begins in old leaves and spreads to the branch tips, with browning around the leaf edges. Damage due to environmental stresses tends to cause overall browning to the canopy and to individual leaves. Trees tend to react to environmental stress soon after damaging conditions occur whereas bacterial leaf scorch is unique in its timing. Leaf browning is generally not noticed until mid-summer and intensifies through late summer and fall. 

The only way to confirm the diagnosis of bacterial leaf scorch is through laboratory analysis. This can be done by sending a sample to the MU Extension Plant Diagnostic Clinic. The best time to test for the presence of this disease is in late summer or early fall when the bacteria count is at its highest.

Life Cycle

Infected leafhoppers and spittlebugs feed on the succulent, terminal shoots of susceptible host trees, transmitting the bacteria. Xylem vessels become clogged with bacteria as they travel within, multiplying and infecting other parts of the tree. There are no viable control options for the insect vectors. The cold-sensitive bacteria overwinter in protected areas within the xylem of the tree, and their populations begin to climb again as the next growing season progresses.

Integrated Pest Management Strategies

1. Maintain plant vigor. There is no cure for the disease. Keeping susceptible trees healthy and thriving can help them resist infection and survive longer once they are infected.

2. Practice good sanitation. Branches that have died due to bacterial leaf scorch should be routinely removed. Infected trees that are in a severe state of decline should also be removed. Disinfect pruning tools with a 10% bleach solution between pruning cuts.

3. Plant resistant species.  In areas where bacterial leaf scorch has occurred, avoid planting highly susceptible trees.

4. Antibiotic injections.  Oxytetracycline root flare injections applied in spring can reduce bacterium levels and delay symptoms by a couple of weeks. They are expensive, need to be reapplied each year, and possible damage resulting from long-term use is unknown. A certified arborist should be contacted if you are considering injections.

Organic Strategies

Strategies 1, 2, and 3 are organic approaches.