Sudden decline in Hyattsville’s white oaks

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A photo from the UMD fact sheet, showing the browning foliage. Courtesy of David Clement/UMD

By SOPHIE GORMAN ORIANI — At the Hyattsville City Council meeting on Nov. 18, Lesley Riddle, the director of Public Works, informed the council of a rapid decline in the health of many white oaks (Quercus alba) in the City of Hyattsville.

“They’re dying with the leaves on, without abscission happening,” Riddle said. Affected oaks are on both parkland and private property.

“This specific decline is being caused by an abiotic disorder — that’s a physical disorder,” Riddle said.

This decline is a regional problem, and the University of Maryland Extension has published a fact sheet on the issue, which says that, “At this point, our best assessment is that the phenomenon is most likely an accelerated version of what is commonly called ‘tree decline.’” 

While older oak trees typically decline over a number of years, Riddle noted the effects of a changing climate, including heavy rain in previous years, followed by long periods of dryness. “There was no official drought, but four months of no rain — that’s pretty tough.”

“We are looking to next year to see if maybe some of these may come back,” Riddle added. A treatment such as spraying would not save the affected trees, as the disorder is physical in nature and is not caused by living organisms.

Riddle said that Hyattsville has an “aggressive replacement program,” although the city will not be planting more white oaks. “We need to look at other species that are going to … have a better survivability than our native oaks.” 

According to Riddle and the University of Maryland, residents who have white oaks should provide them with deep but infrequent watering, allowing the soil to dry out in between waterings.

“The best way forward, at least now, is hold on and see what happens next year,” said Riddle, adding that if a tree didn’t grow new leaves in the spring, a professional arborist should be consulted.

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