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Dutch elm disease

Quick facts

  • Dutch elm disease (DED) causes wilt and death in all species of elm native to Minnesota

  • The disease is caused by the invasive fungal pathogen, Ophiostoma novo-ulmi, and occurs throughout Minnesota.

  • Elm bark beetles spread the DED fungus when feeding.

  • The DED fungus can spread from tree to tree through root grafts.

  • Fungicide injections can protect elm trees from infection by bark beetles.

  • If caught early, DED infections can be pruned out and the tree can be protected by fungicides.

  • Several DED resistant varieties are available.

How to identify Dutch elm disease

Yellow, wilting leaves on an elm
Leaves on infected branches turn yellow, wilt and then turn brown
  • Leaves on one or more branches in the outer crown of the tree turn yellow, wilt and then turn brown.

  • Fallen leaves are strewn over the lawn in spring or summer.

  • Symptoms often first appear in late spring and early summer but can occur any time during the growing season.

  • Yellowing and wilting of leaves progresses down the infected branch towards the trunk of the tree.

  • The rate of spread down the tree depends on the susceptibility of the tree. Infected trees may die the season they become infected or over a period of several years.

  • If the bark is removed, brown streaking can be seen along the sapwood of wilted branches.

  • To positively confirm the disease, send a sample of live branches displaying wilt symptoms to the UMN plant disease diagnostic clinic.

Trees affected by Dutch elm disease

All native species of elm are susceptible to DED. This includes:

  • American elm (Ulmus americana)

    • Some varieties of American elm have a higher tolerance to the disease and may recover if infected. These are often marketed as DED resistant.

  • Red or slippery elm (U. rubra)

  • Rock elm (U. thomasii)

Asiatic elms have higher levels of resistance to DED and may not develop symptoms of disease.

  • Chinese elm (U. parvifolia) - not hardy in Minnesota. This tree is used as a parent in DED resistant hybrids.

  • Japanese elm (U. davidiana var. japonica)

  • Siberian elm (U. pumila) - Individual trees vary greatly in resistance to DED. Some wilt and die when infected, others tolerate the infection for many years.

Researchers and plant breeders have developed several hybrid Asian elms and American elms that are resistant or tolerant of DED. Detailed information about elm varieties that grow well in Minnesota can be found in the publication Dutch elm disease-resistant trees.

How does Dutch elm disease survive and spread?

Tunnel-like formations on an elm bark
Galleries of the smaller European bark beetle in elm wood

Dutch elm disease is caused by two closely related fungi, Ophiostoma ulmi and Ophiostoma novo-ulmi. Ophiostoma novo-ulmi is the more aggressive species and is the most common pathogen associated with DED today.

The fungus that causes Dutch elm disease is an invasive species and was first introduced to Minnesota in 1961.The devastating history of Dutch elm disease in Minnesota was recorded by plant pathologist David W. French. Today, the disease can be found in every county in Minnesota yet it is estimated that 1 million elms still remain within communities.

How does Dutch elm disease spread?

Carried by bark beetles

  • The native elm bark beetle (Hylurgopinus rufipes), the smaller European elm bark beetle (Scolytus multistriatus) and the banded elm bark beetle (S. schevyrewi) can all carry spores of the DED fungus from one tree to another.

  • Adult females of all three species of elm bark beetle lay eggs under the bark of recently dead or dying trees, or in firewood or logs with firmly attached bark.

  • Larvae feed on the inner bark and sapwood of the tree creating galleries and tunnels as they feed.

  • If the tree is infected with or was killed by DED, the DED fungus will be present in the wood. Sticky spores of the DED fungus will be produced within tunnels and galleries created by the bark beetles.

  • When the new beetles emerge as adults from infected elms, they carry spores of the fungus on and in their bodies.

  • Newly emerged beetles fly to healthy trees to feed.

  • As the beetles chew through the bark, spores on the beetle’s body are knocked off in the process. These spores start new DED infections.

    • Smaller European elm bark beetles and banded elm bark beetles feed in twig crotches of healthy trees. Therefore new infections are seen at small twigs.

    • Native elm bark beetles feed on larger branches that are 2-10 inches in diameter. Theses infections occur on main or secondary branches.

    • Several beetles may feed in a single tree resulting in multiple infections scattered throughout the canopy.

    • Occasionally native elm bark beetles introduce DED into the lower branches of the tree when burrowing to create an overwintering site.

Movement within the tree

  • Once in the trees' vascular system, the fungal spores are carried up the tree with the flow of water.

  • The tree produces plug-like structures called tyloses in the water transporting cells of the tree's vascular system in an attempt to stop fungal movement through the tree.

  • Unfortunately susceptible trees do not produce tyloses quickly enough to block the fungus. Instead this poorly timed defense response can cause wilt and decline within the canopy.

Movement through root grafts

  • The DED fungus produces a thread-like growth called mycelium that grows downward towards the root system.

  • In susceptible trees, the fungus is often capable of reaching the root system within the first season in which it is infected.

  • Neighboring elm trees will form root grafts, that allow for water and nutrients to flow from one tree to the other.

    • Root grafts commonly occur between neighboring trees of the same species.

    • Root grafts occasionally occur between neighboring trees from different species.

  • The DED fungus can move through root grafts to infect neighboring trees.

  • Infection that begins through a root graft often moves very quickly through the tree.

How to manage Dutch elm disease

  • Reduce the number of breeding sites available to the beetles through prompt removal of dead or dying elm wood with intact bark.

    • Branches infected with DED should be removed the same year the infection starts.

    • Trees with many branches infected with DED should be taken down.

    • Wood from DED infected elm trees should be buried, debarked, burned or chipped.

  • Remove infected branches before the disease has moved into the main stem of the tree. All infected branches must be removed at least 5 feet, preferably 10 feet, below the last sign of streaking in the sapwood.

  • Dutch elm disease can spread through root grafts from an infected tree to adjacent healthy elms. If possible, sever root grafts with a vibratory plow before the infected tree is removed in order to prevent this movement.

  • Choose Dutch elm disease resistant cultivars for new plantings or as replacement trees.

    • Tolerant cultivars are not immune to the disease and may develop wilt if infected.

    • Unlike susceptible trees, tolerant elms can block the spread of the pathogen and will not be killed.

    • Infected branches should be pruned out as described above.

  • Preventative fungicide injections can be used to protect trees from infection by beetle feeding.

    • Fungicide injections are not very effective in preventing infection through root grafts. So, it is important that all trees in an area be treated and root grafts severed before removal of an infected tree.

    • Fungicide injections can only be done by a trained arborist. Depending on the chosen fungicide, the treatment must be repeated every 1-3 years.

    • Fungicides with the active ingredients thiabendazole and propiconazole are effective against DED.

CAUTION: Mention of a pesticide or use of a pesticide label is for educational purposes only. Always follow the pesticide label directions attached to the pesticide container you are using. Remember, the label is the law.

Michelle Grabowski, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2019

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