Sudden oak death found in state

Infected plant was sent, with others, from Calif.

April 17, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Sudden oak death -- a disease that has killed thousands of trees since 1995 in California -- has arrived in Maryland.

State agriculture officials know of only one infected plant, a camellia bought by a Maryland nursery from a California supplier. But officials say that hundreds of plants shipped from infected nurseries in California have yet to be tracked down and that any of them could be carrying the pathogen, which can spread through airborne spores and kill or damage dozens of plant species.

State officials are seeking the public's help in finding them.

"There's no evidence it's been released into the environment, but we obviously will keep the public informed," said William F. Gimpel Jr., administrator of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's plant protection and weed management section.

Maryland officials were notified a month ago by California authorities that routine inspections uncovered infected camellia plants at two California nurseries: a mail-order firm near San Diego and a 500-acre wholesaler near Los Angeles. Neither company was in the 12-county quarantine area established in California to contain the disease.

The mail-order firm had shipped 234 bonsai camellias to Maryland customers, and the wholesaler had shipped 500 camellias, lilacs and viburnums to 11 Maryland nurseries, Gimpel said. He declined to identify the customers and nurseries.

Gimpel sent notices to the mail-order customers with zippered bags, asking them to snip off and return leaves from the plants they bought. He said some of those customers have responded. But he was not sure how many had responded and what the test results were on the leaves they returned.

He said that of the 500 plants shipped to area nurseries, only 50 remained on the shelves. The others had been sold, making them impossible to trace.

"Nurseries are cash-and-carry businesses, and there's no way to figure out where those plants are right now," Gimpel said.

Tests done by the department's Annapolis lab on the 50 remaining plants showed that one was positive for sudden oak.

Sudden oak death, or Phytophthora ramorum, is a funguslike pathogen that spreads by sending spores from infected leaves, twigs and tree trunks. Spores can become wind-borne, swim and survive for years in a dormant state, traveling on hikers' shoes or on car tires. No one is sure where it originated, but it has been found in Germany and the Netherlands.

"It's a scary organism. You don't need much of it to cause a problem," said Jonathan McKnight, a wildlife biologist who tracks invasive species for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Since sudden oak was detected in California's Marin County in 1995, scientists have learned that it can kill or damage at least 59 types of plants, including Douglas fir, oak, rhododendron, mountain laurel, camellia and viburnum.

California officials have quarantined 12 counties and closed parks in some areas because so many trees are dying that they pose a danger to passers-by.

"It's a major concern," said Katie Palmieri, a spokeswoman for the California Oak Mortality Task Force.

Gimpel asks that anyone with information about camellias, lilacs or viburnum bought from a Maryland nursery in the past year call his office at 410-841- 5920.

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