Dutch elm disease is a wilt disease caused by the fungus, Ceratocystis ulmi. It was described in Ohio in 1930. By the 1980s, it could be found in most of the U.S. It is a serious and fatal disease of American elms. Even after years of study, there is no effective cure for the disease.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms develop rapidly during a period of 4–6 weeks after leaves reach full size. The first visible symptoms are yellowing of foliage followed by wilting and browning, a condition called flagging. Usually, a single branch is affected first; wilted branches die rapidly and the leaves brown, curl, and often drop prematurely. The symptoms spread to nearby branches and then to one whole part of the tree. The entire tree finally wilts and dies. This progression of symptoms may develop in one season or may take several years. A positive diagnosis of the disease requires a laboratory test to culture the fungal pathogen.

Life Cycle

The fungus is primarily dependent on insect vectored transmission from tree to tree over long distances. There are 2 vectors for the fungus in North America, the native American elm bark beetle and the less prevalent European elm bark beetle. Both of these beetles feed and breed under the bark of living or recently dead elm trees or logs. They carry the spores of the fungus from infected trees and innoculate healthy trees as they feed. Both species of elm bark beetles are effective carriers. The cycle of infection by the fungus is tied to the life cycle of the vectors. The beetles breed in recently dead elm wood or weakened living trees. If the fungus is present in breeding sites, emerging beetles will carry spores to healthy elms and introduce the fungus in feeding sites on young twigs. The beetles can fly up to 1/4 mile in search of feeding or breeding sites, but they may be blown many miles by winds. The disease may also spread by root grafts from a diseased elm tree to a healthy elm tree provided that the root systems overlap.

Integrated Pest Management Strategies

1. There is no cure for the disease. If your elm tree has leaves yellowing or wilting on one or more branches, cut off several small branches and look for brown streaking in the sapwood. If brown streaking is evident, a laboratory test is suggested for positive identification. This disease may be confused with other canker and wilt pathogens of elm.

2. Maintain plant health. Provide adequate amounts of water and fertilizer. Mild cases of Dutch elm disease may respond to pruning of diseased wood if less than 5% of the tree is infected. Control the insect vectors. Systemic fungicides injected into the tree at 1–3 year intervals have proven beneficial in providing protection. An arborist should be consulted to discuss costs and potential benefits.

3. Remove diseased trees. Severe cases require complete removal of the tree. Wood should not be saved for firewood. It should be chipped to destroy the beetle’s breeding place. Nearby American elms may also be infected through root grafts. Destroying root grafts by mechanical severing can slow the spread of the disease if done before the fungus has moved into healthy elm trees. This may not be practical in a home setting.

4. Replace diseased trees with varieties resistant to Dutch elm disease. The true Chinese elm, Ulmus parviflora, a tree with multi-colored bark, is one choice. A related tree with a vase shape similar to American elm is the Japanese zelkova, Zelkova serrata. Both are resistant to Dutch elm disease but not immune.

Organic Strategies

Strategies 1, 3, and 4 are strictly organic approaches. With the exception of fungicide use, other approaches discussed in Strategy 2 are also organic strategies.