SOD and the costs to garden centres and nurseries--is it all for naught?

Though there has been little publicity about Sudden Oak Death (previously known as Sudden Oak Death Syndrome) in eastern Canada, it is indeed a major, major news story in British Columbia. It first came to light in Canada generally in March 2001, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) placed interim regulations prohibiting entry of certain host plants from California and Oregon, as well as some European countries.
Thought by most (but certainly not all) scientists to be caused by Phytophthora ramorum the ‘disease’ is not a fungus or a bacterium, but rather a member of a unique group of organisms called Oomycetes, which share some characteristics of fungi but are biologically different.

Though there have been various (increasing and expanding) quarantines on nursery stock coming from California and Oregon (among other locations internationally), the nursery industry was able to live with them. Then came the announcement in September last year of much more strict regulations which led to the prohibition of all nursery stock from certain areas which meant the largest U.S. (California and Oregon) supplier of a wide range of nursery stock could not ship anything to Canada. Particularly affected by this was British Columbia, with its similar-to-Oregon climate and which depends heavily on shipments from companies such as Monrovia in Azusa California.

The announcement in April this year, from the CFIA, in conjunction with the B.C. Landscape and Nursery Association (BCLNA) was that there would be, immediately, a recall of all Camellia plants sold in the province since September 1 last year. The April 20 news release said, in part: The CFIA and BCLNA “are appealing to BC resi-dents to assist in a recall of Camellia plants that were imported from Monrovia Nursery in Azusa, California. The recall is being conducted to remove any plants that may be infected with the plant disease Sudden Oak Death (SOD) from the environment. BCLNA [representatives] will be sent to the homes of people who own potentially infected Camellias, to remove them in a manner that will prevent spreading of the disease.

“Anyone who may have a Camellia from Monrovia is asked to: 1) Have ready the name of the garden centre where they purchased the Camellia and the approximate purchase date; 2) NOT to touch the plant. Leave it undisturbed in the garden. Suspect plants should be removed ONLY by qualified staff to prevent further spread of the disease; and 3) NOT to take the plant or its leaves to garden centres. (Plants can be tested only at an accredited laboratory.)

“An appreciation package, including a coupon that can be redeemed at a garden centre will be given to each person that has a Camellia removed.

[Each coupon was for the approximate value of the original plant, and the affected gardeners also received a copy of GardenWise magazine and an explanatory letter. The coupons aspect of the programme was entirely underwritten by the Monrovia company.]
“The CFIA has been sampling plant material at Canadian nurseries and garden centres that received plants from California after being notified by US officials in March that CFIA has suspended entry into Canada of all plants from Monrovia Nursery and any SOD-susceptible plants from California, pending assurances by California that their exports are free of SOD. The CFIA is also continuing to survey, sample and test susceptible plant material previously received from California. It is anticipated that more premises may be found to be affected.”

So, now we can add SOD to the growing (pardon the pun) list ‘problems’ with which the CFIA are dealing, and in virtually all cases, dealing with them by removing, killing or culling thousands of trees, and now ornamental shrubs. In most recent history, first in 2000, it was the brown spruce longhorn beetle, the eradication (hopeful) of which lead to the destroying of tens of thousands of trees in, amongst other places, Point Pleasant Park in Halifax. Next, in 2002, came the Emerald ash borer, moving from Michigan into Essex County Ontario, and, beginning last year, the destruction there of tens of thousands of ash and other trees in a ring around Windsor and environs to try to confine the insect to one area. Then, in the Toronto/Vaughan area of Greater Toronto, beginning in September last year, we had the Asian longhorned beetle. Its control, by quarantining a vast area and removing thou-sands of vulnerable trees, again supposedly to contain the spread of the beetle, is ongoing.

Finally, there is the destruction of currently in excess of 5,000 oak trees in Oakville Ontario, in order to try and “contain” the two-lined chestnut borer that is attacking stressed oaks (and other trees) there.

Let me return to SOD. One of the concerns is that not only oaks are affected. The ‘disease’ can be carried on and infect Rhododendron, Camellia, Viburnum, Madrone (Arbutus), Douglas fir and many more trees and shrubs. Hence, the removal order for the Camellias. In British Columbia, where there are literally millions of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga taxifolia), the B.C. forest people must have seen red immediately and action was immediate.

I first wrote about SOD on January 6, 2002, and then again on May 9 this year. Since the May 9th article, there has been some time to assess the results of the recall of the Camellia plants. Jane Stock, executive director of the British Columbia Landscape Nursery Association, told me that over 1,400 plants had been ‘turned in’ by gardeners, a number considered amazingly high by those who chart this type of public response.

The cost to the trade association was close to $100,000. Jane also pointed out that BCLNA will receive funding from CFIA as a result of an agreement reached between the two groups prior to the April announcement. She see’s CFIA refunding about 50 percent of BCLNA’s $100,000 expenditure. This agreement was reached because the two groups saw the project being more successful if the trade group was responsible for and managed the appeal to the public, rather than CFIA--essentially the federal government.

There are several other angles to this SOD story. For ex-ample, it has not been missed by certain nursery growers that the federal Health of Animals act has provision for funding compensation to farmers in cases such as mad cow disease and the bird flu that recently caused tens of thousands of chickens to be put down in British Columbia. The Plant Protection Act has no such provisions and it likely should be brought into line with the Health of Animals act.

There is also the Canadian Plant Protection Advisory Committee (and under it, individual organizations in the provinces) which is currently attempting to put forth a plan to fund similar recalls in the future. Certainly the members of the BCLNA, particularly garden centres, would no doubt hope that such recalls in the future would be funded by an already established scheme.

And finally there is the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association’s programme to develop and implement a Canadian Nursery Certification Program (CNCP) for exporting nurseries. The USDA is apparently considering implementing a similar program to complement trade with Canada. Only The Netherlands has such a certification programme for growing nurseries in place at this time.

After reviewing a ton of printed material on SOD, it is quite apparent that not all scientists agree on what causes the ‘disease’ (whether it is Phytophthora ramorum alone, with other factors, or at all). For example, disputing the idea that P. ramorum is the primary cause of SOD, some scientists are dubious. “Even if you take the strictest definition of SOD--the Phytophthora pathogen--there are still problems, the most serious one being that the mosses were not controlled (or accounted for) in their test,” says Dr. Lee Klinger, who holds degrees (MAs and Ph.Ds) from the University of Colorado. He has been independently studying worldwide tree decline since the mid-80s. Lee Klinger built his career on studying mosses and first published about their effect on tree roots in 1991. He maintains that mosses might be killing the oaks.

Additionally, Lee Klinger believes that only trees with SOD are being studied. “If the tree doesn’t have SOD, they’re not studying them.” And, he says, “Most of the trees that are dying have no sign of Phytophthora.”

“In 1985, when he was researching tree death and forest decline on Kruzof Island off the coast of Alaska,” Lee Klinger “noticed that dying trees and the ground around them were covered with moss.”, says Tara Treasurefield in the Sonoma Valley Voice. “His 20 years of research data support his contention that moss runoff, which is highly acidic, increases the acid content of the soil and contributes to yellow cedar decline in Alaska, sudden oak death in California and Europe, and similar epidemics of dying trees and forests. The simple, non-toxic, and universal solution to tree death and forest decline, says Dr. Klinger, is to reduce soil acidity.
“There are many ways to reduce soil acidity. Scientists at Hubbard Brook Research Foundation in New Hampshire, and at Cornell University in New York, are doing it by treating declining forests with calcium and other minerals. In the 1980s, German scientists reversed the decline of the Black Forest by using lime to reduce the acidic content of the soil. And long ago, Native Americans revitalized dying forests with fire, which also decreases the acidic con-tent of the soil.

As reported by Annette Stark in the April 15 LA CityBeat, “Marin County [adjacent to San Francisco] botanist Ralph Zingaro has been treating trees, and reportedly curing them, by adjusting acidic soils with phosphates. He says the fungus is only opportunistic, and environmental causes are dominant.”
[As an aside, botanist Zingaro was served with a civil consumer protection lawsuit over his promotion and use of a fertilizer to combat SOD. He has been the subject of an ongoing inquiry by agriculture and district attorney officials who said arborists complained he had been touting the curative effects of a phosphite fertilizer product (formulated from neutralized phosphoric acid) before state regulators had approved a treatment for the disease.]
Annette Stark in LA CityBeat also went further, quoting Don Dillon Jr., board chairman of the California Association of Nursery and Garden Centers, as “…urging scientists to recognize that California’s $3 billion wholesale nursery industry and 169,000 jobs are at stake. ‘Comments made by researchers--like when they found it on a wild rose in Sonoma [County], leading to the inference that all roses are at risk of spreading this disease--are ridiculous,’ he says. ‘It’s like saying all human beings have the potential of getting SARS; therefore all human beings should stop traveling.’

“The Sonoma rose findings involved a wood rose that was artificially inoculated with the fungus in a Berkeley lab. The announcement fuelled the controversy about what ex-actly causes SOD and how it can be controlled and cured.”
These comments on the rose bush aspect are particularly interesting as rose growers here in Canada (both amateur and professional) are now prohibited from importing any rose materials from Europe. Robin Dening, owner of Brentwood Bay Nurseries in Victoria, after making a strong appeal to be able to import a few dozen bushes from Kordes in Germany this spring, had to ship them all back on receipt as the new regulations re SOD were declared!

Still another aspect of SOD, is a controversy about whether or not the entire SOD programme is designed as a make work and “get grant money” boondoggle for academia, scientists and government (USDA) bureaucrats. Take for example, the statements of Bill Stringfellow, North American vice president for Agrichem, manufacturers of Agri-Fos a fungicide first reported by the University of California Berkeley as a ‘cure’, and later reduced in stat-ure to a ‘preventative’ for trees, which the pathogen has not yet reached. “The SOD effort is a great big pork barrel project for the SOD task force and the USDA, which is getting huge government funds to cut down trees,” Bill Stringfellow argues. “So, this is job security, a retirement fund that’s worth millions of dollars.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed in Canada about the CFIA’s “fixes” for the earlier-named tree problems. Are all or some of these actions gigantic over-reactions? I guess it remains to be seen, but I’m putting my money on the conclusions of the likes of Lee Klinger and Ralph Zingaro!