Worldwide, Nectria fungi cause several common canker and dieback diseases, especially in hardwood trees. Nectria canker, which is caused by the fungus, Nectria galligena, may occur on over 60 species of trees and shrubs including apple, ash, birch, dogwood, elm, sweet gum, holly, maple, pear, and walnut. A similar disease infects members of the magnolia family. Nectria canker is usually not a fatal disease, but it can cause considerable damage as the cankered area is weakened and susceptible to breakage. It may also adversely affect the appearance of the affected plant. This disease is important commercially as it reduces the quality and quantity of forest products.

Another member of the Nectria genus, Nectria cinnabarina, causes the disease Nectria dieback. Also known as coral spot Nectria canker or Nectria canker, this disease occurs on many plant species, including apple, ash, barberry, birch, boxwood, crabapple, elm, hickory, honey locust, linden, maple, pear, rose and Japanese zelkova. Nectria cinnabarina usually grows as a saprophyte on dead wood, but if a plant is wounded or otherwise stressed, the fungus becomes an opportunistic weak parasite, producing cankers and causing dieback of twigs and branches. Maples are especially affected by this disease as are recently wounded or severely pruned trees and shrubs, urban ornamentals, and new transplants of other species.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Although it is most common in spring and fall, the Nectria fungus can infect plants throughout the year as long as there is sufficient moisture and the temperature is above freezing. Plants that are stressed by cold, drought, mechanical injuries, or other diseases are especially susceptible. Infections may be worse in autumn and winter when the host plant is dormant and wound recovery is weaker than in the growing season.

The first symptom of a Nectria infection is a depressed discolored area of bark near wounds or at the base of dead twigs or branches. These cankers are usually not noticed until other symptoms appear.

The first easily visible signs of Nectria canker are small creamy white or red to reddish-orange fruiting structures and the development of callus tissue. This callus tissue is produced as the host plant attempts to isolate the fungus. If the callus does not isolate the infection, the fungus will continue to grow into healthy wood and the plant will respond by growing another ridge of callus tissue. This alternation of fungal growth and callus ridge, which may occur for many years, results in a rounded or elongated target-like shape. The bark of older ridges may decay and weather away exposing the ridges of wood underneath. This disease grows slowly and larger stems are rarely girdled, although multiple lesions may grow together and kill a branch or the entire plant. Plants that are stressed are most severely affected by the disease. This fungus may also affect apple fruit causing it to rot during storage.

The first obvious sign of Nectria dieback may not occur until spring when the plant begins to grow. Affected twigs, branches, or even entire plants will not produce leaves or may wilt suddenly. Larger branches or small trees may be girdled and killed. The fungus produces reproductive structures that vary in color from creamy, coral pink, pink-orange, light purplish red, or orange-red and that darken as they mature.

Life Cycle

Nectria galligena overwinters in the callus tissue growing slowly while its host is dormant. During moist periods, creamy white cushion-like fruiting structures will develop. These are followed by a second type of reproductive structure, which is red to reddish-orange, pin-head sized, and lemon-shaped, in autumn through spring. During rain or other moist weather, spores are released and dispersed by wind or water infecting susceptible plants through natural openings such as leaf scars or through wounds from improper pruning, sunscald, storm damage, frost cracks, or other mechanical damage. As the fungus grows, it kills bark, cambium, and the outermost sapwood.

The life cycle of the Nectria dieback fungus is similar to that of Nectria canker. Creamy to coral pink to pink-orange or light purplish red spore-producing structures develop in spring or early summer. These will age to tan, brown, or nearly black. Orange-red fruiting structures, which mature to dark reddish brown and may persist through winter, are produced in summer and autumn. Both structures release spores that are dispersed by water and can invade susceptible tissue producing cankers and dieback.

Integrated Pest Management Strategies

1. Proper selection. Choose trees and shrubs that are well adapted to the climate of the area to minimize infection due to freeze damage and other environmental stresses.

2. Maintain plant vigor. Keep plants healthy and growing vigorously by using good cultural techniques. These include choosing the appropriate planting site, watering during dry periods, using mulch around the base of the tree or shrub, and fertilizing and pruning properly. Pruning is best done in late winter. Avoid pruning in spring when higher moisture can increase the risk of infection or in late summer and autumn, which can delay the plant’s natural cold hardiness response. Minimize any wounding due to root pruning, transplanting, or lawnmowers to reduce infection sites.

3. Prune. Prune out branch cankers during dry periods when conditions are unfavorable for infection. Disinfect pruning tools in a 1-part bleach to 9-part water solution between each cut.

Organic Strategies

Strategies 1 and 3 are strictly organic approaches.  Using an appropriate organic fertilizer would be a viable organic approach to Strategy 2.