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Dutch elm disease

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last updated Mar 31, 2014
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Dutch elm disease

Dutch elm disease is a devastating fungal disease that is spread by elm bark beetles and causes rapid browning, shrivelling and death of Ulmus spp. (elms) and the closely related Zelkova.

What is Dutch elm disease? Back to top

Dutch elm disease (DED) is a serious disease of elms caused by the fungus Ophiostoma novo-ulmi. It is a type of disease known as a vascular wilt because the fungus blocks the vascular (water transport) system, causing the branches to wilt and die. It is spread by elm bark beetles. Damage is usually seen in summer and early autumn

It only occurs in Ulmus spp. (elms) and Zelkova.

Symptoms Back to top

You may see the following symptoms:

  • At any time in the summer months, all or part of the foliage suddenly turns yellow, then wilts, shrivels and dies
  • Peeling off the bark from affected branches will reveal brown streaks in the outer wood, which appear as a broken or continuous brown ring in the outer growth ring if the branch is cut across
Dutch elm disease

Dutch elm disease

Control Back to top

Non-chemical control

All attempts to prevent the spread of DED have been long since abandoned, except in the Brighton and Hove area.  However, dead trees are a safety hazard and should be felled promptly.

We advise that native elms should not be planted, as they will almost inevitably succumb to DED. Zelkova spp. appear less badly damaged. Some resistant hybrid elms are beginning to appear on the market, but at present gardeners should note that while these are attractive trees, they are different in shape from those that have been lost and do not exactly replace them. They are also only available in limited supply as specimen trees, and are expensive.

Recommended cultivars:

The Conservation Foundation have a Native Elm Programme for propagating elms from the survivors of the last disease outbreak. Anyone who knows of a healthy mature elm (at least 190cms circumference at breast height) or would like an elm to plant as part of the experimental programme is encouraged to contact the Conservation Foundation.

Chemical control

No chemical control is feasible. Protectant fungicides were injected into trunks in the early stages of the outbreak, but this was required annually and soon abandoned as impractical. It is also completely impractical to control the beetle vectors.

Biology Back to top

The disease is known as ‘Dutch’ because important early research on it was carried out in the Netherlands.

It is caused by the fungus Ophiostoma novo-ulmi which was accidentally introduced to the UK from the USA in the late 1960s on imported elm logs. Prior to this, northern Europe already had a form of DED caused by another related fungus, Ophiostoma ulmi, and for some time it was not realised that the fungus in the UK was different. O. novo-ulmi is not native to the USA and its true origin is unknown.

The fungus is spread by elm bark beetles, particularly Scolytus scolytus. Beetles breed in dead and dying elms, including those killed by the disease, where the larvae tunnel in the bark and outermost wood, forming galleries. The fungus produces sticky spores in these galleries, which contaminate the newly hatched adult beetles as they emerge. They then fly to healthy elms, where they feed on young bark and introduce the pathogen into the conducting tissue (xylem) of the tree. The fungus grows in the xylem, blocking water flow and causing rapid wilting and death. It can spread rapidly down rows of hedgerow elms through root grafts formed between adjacent trees.

The beetles tend to attack mature trees over 20-years-old, and therefore the first wave of the disease in the early 1970s was followed by a lull while the trees regenerated from suckers. But these regenerated trees have in turn succumbed. The disease has not quite reached the northern limits of elms and some remain in Scotland. Mature elms in the Brighton and Hove area have also largely escaped infection to date, but are under constant threat.

Quick facts

Common name Dutch elm disease
Scientific name Ophiostoma novo-ulmi
Plants affected Ulmus spp. (elms) and Zelkova
Main symptoms Wilting and death of foliage and branches
Caused by Fungus (carried by beetles)
Timing Damage usually seen summer to early autumn
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