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Why Beech Leaf Disease Is Easy To Spot But Tough To Treat In just a decade, this unusual disease has spread from Ohio across the Northeast. Scientists are testing treatments, but answers come slowly.


by Robin Kazmier
Beech trees from Ohio to New England are losing leaves and dying off in alarming numbers. The American beech, recognizable by its smooth gray trunk, is a key species in many eastern forests and provides nutritious beechnuts favored by animals from woodpeckers to deer to black bears. But now a microscopic worm called a nematode is threatening the trees on a growing scale. As far as plant parasites go, nematodes are common, but they tend to damage the roots. The species of nematode that is causing Beech Leaf Disease (BLD) is different: It afflicts the leaves, and it’s deadly.

“There’s never been a foliar nematode that can cause mortality of a large forest tree like beech,” says Dr. Nicholas Brazee, a plant pathologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Extension Plant Diagnostics Laboratory. Because there’s no precedent for this kind of pest, there were no obvious treatments to consider when the disease emerged. “Researchers are just kind of starting from ground zero to see what will possibly work,” he says.

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