Photo of the Week – March 17, 2016

You’ve probably seen them – funny-looking brown balls stuck to eastern red cedar trees.  Sometimes, the  balls have long gooey orange tentacles hanging from them.  Do you know the story behind them?

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Cedar-apple rust is a fascinating organism that uses two different hosts to help it complete its life cycle.  Galls that form on eastern red cedar trees eventually release spores, some of which make their way to leaves of apple or crabapple trees.  On those leaves, they stimulate formation of yellow lesions that eventually mature and create more spores that then need to make their way back to another cedar tree to complete the cycle.  The lesions on the leaves can be harmful to the apple trees (including the one in my yard) but I’m not sure there’s any big impact on cedars.

You can read much more about this at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s website.

I found the above gall at our family prairie last month.  And yes, I did cut the cedar tree down after I photographed the gall (see photo evidence below).

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The Mystery of the Dying Cedar Trees

As I travel across Nebraska this year, I keep seeing dead and dying eastern red cedar trees.  Some are big, some are small, but they’re definitely dead.  Since cedar trees are a major invader of grasslands across the state, I’m not complaining about all the dead ones, but I do wonder what’s killing them.

Why are cedar trees dying around Nebraska?
Why are cedar trees like these dying around Nebraska?

Interestingly, the trees seem to be dying in clusters, rather than as random or scattered individuals.  To me, that indicates at least two possible causes of death.  One possibility is that some kind of disease or insect is killing trees and then spreading to others nearby.  The second is that trees are dying from last year’s drought conditions and that local variation in soil texture means that cedars in some places were more vulnerable to drought than others.

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Not all cedar trees are dying.  Sometimes it appears that random trees are dying and others right next to them are not.  Upon closer inspection, however, there are usually clusters of trees that are dying (note the right side of this photo).  Disease?  Or drought/soils?

Since my experience with trees is mostly limited to attempts to keep them out of my prairies, I thought I’d contact someone who has a broader range of expertise on the subject.  I emailed Scott Josiah, the state forester with the Nebraska Forest Service and asked him why cedar trees are dying.  Scott said he thought the drought hypothesis made the most sense, and that trees growing in soils with coarse sands and low levels of organic matter, for example, would be stressed more than those in soils that hold more moisture.

It was good to hear from an expert on the subject, but I’ll admit to a little skepticism.  I really like Scott, and as I said above, I’m no expert on trees, but cedar trees sure seem like they’d be tough enough to survive a one year drought…  Heck, I’ve seen them growing out of ROCKS!  I took Scott’s answer and filed it away, but continued to wonder about the possibility of a disease or insect outbreak that foresters and others just hadn’t yet identified.

And then last week, I found some pretty convincing evidence that I think has solved the mystery.

We were at our Kelly Tract on the North Platte River, working on some vegetation sampling and Canada thistle control when I noticed some dead cedar trees in some old shelterbelts on the property.  As I got closer, I realized this was a perfect site to test Scott’s idea that drought was killing cedar trees.  The Kelly Tract is a floodplain prairie with strong patterns of alluvial (river deposited) soils across the site.  That means there are lots of different soil types all mixed together – a naturally-occurring experimental design.

soil patterns
From this angle, you can clearly see some of the alluvial soil patterns that intersect with the line of cedar trees at The Nature Conservancy’s Kelly Tract along the North Platte River by Sutherland, Nebraska.

While conducting my vegetation surveys, I noticed that last year’s drought had definitely affected the grasses and wildflowers much more severely in some places than others.  Broad streaks of green and brown wound across the prairie, tracing the old channels and sandbars formed when the river had long ago flowed across the site.  When we’ve done soil sampling elsewhere along the Platte, we’ve found that soils with coarse sand and low organic matter are quickest to dry up in drought conditions – I assume the same is true at the Kelly Tract.  I figured that if drought, combined with soil texture, was killing cedar trees, I’d be able to see whether the dead trees were in the same “streaks” that contained dried up grasses and wildflowers.

They were.  In fact, every brown tree I saw was located along a streak of brown grass, and every green tree was in a streak of green grass.  It was as perfect a pattern as you could hope for.

The outlined area in this aerial photo.
This aerial photo from several years ago shows the alluvial soil patterns more clearly than in the earlier photo.  The red outline is approximately the same location the earlier photo was taken from.  I haven’t yet been able to find any aerial photography from this year (this older photo doesn’t show this year’s brown trees) but when I do, I’ll bet the brown trees will be in the brown streaks…

While cedar trees are certainly tough, it sure looks as if Scott was right – last year’s drought was just too much for those trees to handle, at least in some soils.  Mystery solved!

Way to go, Scott!   Now I have a new problem…  Do I hope for a wet year to help our prairies recover?  Or a dry year to kill more cedars??