Oak wilt is a systematic disease caused by the fungus, Bretziella fagacearum (formerly Ceratocystis fagacearum). The fungus invades the water-conducting tissues of oak trees. The black oak group (red, black, scarlet, and pin oaks) is more susceptible than the white oak group (white, bur, chinkapin, and swamp oaks). Oak wilt ranges from Minnesota east to Pennsylvania, south to South Carolina and Tennessee, west to central Texas, and north through Kansas and Nebraska. Infection through wounds is especially critical between April 1 and July 1 and during later periods of summer rains. There is no cure for oak wilt, so control consists of measures to prevent the disease from spreading.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The first symptoms include a dull-green appearance of wilted leaves. Later, wilted leaves curl and turn tan or bronze, beginning at the outer portions of the leaves. The base of the leaf and the main vein will remain green for some time. Defoliation may be delayed for weeks. Peeled bark or a cut branch from an infected tree may show a brown or black discoloration in the outer annual sapwood ring. A positive diagnosis of oak wilt requires laboratory culturing and identification.

Life Cycle

The fungus spreads through the water-conducting vessels of the sapwood. The tree’s response to the presence of the fungus results in the disruption of sap flow, and the affected areas wilt. Oak wilt can spread to healthy trees through natural grafts with roots of adjacent oaks of the same species up to 50 feet apart. Root grafts join together the vascular systems of the trees, forming a network through which the disease can spread. The disease can also be spread by sap-feeding beetles that transmit spores of the oak wilt fungus from infected trees to healthy ones.

Integrated Pest Management Strategies

1. There is no cure for the disease. If oak wilt is suspected, a laboratory test is needed to make a positive diagnosis. Contact an arborist or an extension office on sampling procedures and fees associated with the laboratory testing. Samples of freshly wilted stems (not dead) about 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter and 6–10 inches in length are needed for the laboratory test.

2. Sever root grafts. Destroying root grafts with chemicals or by mechanical means can slow the spread of the disease from diseased to healthy oak trees. Since there is a delay between infection and the appearance of symptoms, destroying root grafts is a gamble. Root grafts do not occur between the black oak and white oak groups.

3. Improve plant vigor. Your best guard against getting oak wilt is to keep your oak trees, especially oaks in the black oak group, healthy. If your oak trees do not appear in the best of health, have an experienced arborist evaluate their health and recommend a course of action. Mild cases in white oaks may respond to pruning of diseased wood plus fertilizing and watering to increase plant vigor.

4. Avoid pruning or wounding the tree between mid-March and late June. During this time of year, insects carrying the disease are attracted by the sap which flows freely from wounds. The safest time to prune oaks is during winter before mid-March.

5. Plant white oaks rather than the more susceptible black oaks. If you do plant black oaks, be certain they are more than 50 feet apart to eliminate future disease spread via root grafts. Limit black oak use where oak wilt is prevalent.

Organic Strategies

Strategies 1, 2, 4, and 5 are strictly organic approaches. Using an appropriate organic fertilizer would be a viable organic approach to Strategy 3.