“This pathogen poses a serious threat to Hawaii’s flagship native tree species whose loss would be catastrophic for the diversity, structure, and function of Hawaii’s remaining native forests and the services they provide.” – “First Report of Ceratocystis wilt on Ohia”

“This is the most depressing topic I’ve ever worked on,” said Flint Hughes, a researcher with the Hilo-based Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry. “It’s tragic.”

Hughes has worked on some pretty bleak subjects – invasive grasses, shrubs, and trees (including albizia), among others – but Ceratocystis fimbriata, a fungus that has been killing ohia trees on the island of Hawaii for the last five years tops all the others, he said in a recent interview.

Hughes and colleagues have watched as the fungus, known now as ohia wilt, has spread rapidly from what they believe to be ground zero – the Leilani Estates subdivision in lower Puna – to forested areas throughout Puna and beyond. Remote sensing surveys in 2010 estimated the spread of the infestation at 1,000 hectares (around 2,500 acres). By 2014, 6,000 ha, or 15,000 acres, of ohia stands had been infested. So far, the disease has not been detected in Kona and Kohala, Hughes said, but it has spread northward to Hilo and westward as far as the residential subdivision that backs up against Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

“We have a highly virulent strain of the fungus. We’re looking at a worst-case scenario,” he said.

ohia tree Big Island

An ohia tree on the Big Island at Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge.

Pat Tummons/Environment Hawaii

The research that Hughes and colleagues from the institute (an agency of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center (PBARC), also in Hilo, and the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) undertook to identify the fungus has been summarized in an article, “First Report of Ceratocystis wilt on Ohia,” published online in the scientific journal Plant Disease. That has been a major step forward in pinning down the exact cause of the widespread death of ohia, Hughes noted.

“The Plant Disease report is the benchmark in establishing that this is the pathogen killing the trees,” he said.

 ‘Hop-Scotching’

Even determining the extent of infestation is difficult. Trees may be infected long before showing signs of wilt. That confounds efforts to control the disease. While removing a tree showing signs of the wilt might reduce the chance that it could infect other trees, if it is surrounded by other trees that are infected but still apparently healthy, nothing would be achieved by that effort.

What’s more, little is known about the way the disease spreads through the forest, Hughes says. “It’s hop-scotching, almost like a forest fire,” he noted, with new outbreaks detected at some distance from old ones.

One of the mysteries yet to be solved is how the fungus arrived in Hawaii. Genetic analysis showed it was very similar to strains found in arrowhead plants in Hawaii, Florida, Brazil, and Australia. However, it is not yet known whether this fungus is the introduction of an exotic strain or whether it is an existing strain infecting a new host. The range of Ceratocystis hosts “is scary,” Hughes said, and includes fruit trees, understory plants, and crop species.

While stopping the spread of the disease on Hawaii island may be difficult, it may yet be possible to keep it from moving to other islands. “If we’re smart, we need to take action quickly. Any number of things could carry this to other islands. There’s an immediate need to do something.”

ohia-turning-brown

Symptoms of Ceratocystis wilt of ohia include rapid browning of affected tree crowns.

College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources

A Forest Whodunnit

J.B. Friday, extension forester with CTAHR, elaborated on the difficulty of finding a cure for the disease when so little is known about it.

Friday was one of the first to raise the alarm about Ceratocystis – although until last December, neither he nor anyone else had a name for the disease they were seeing.

He first became aware of a problem in 2010. “I visited a landowner in lower Puna,” Friday said. “He couldn’t figure out what was wrong” with his dying ohia trees.

In 2011, more calls came in from homeowners in the Leilani Estates area. “There are always ohia dying in people’s lots. They bang their roots, do other things. We can’t help homeowners with sick trees, though.”

By 2012, Friday and his colleagues were seeing trees “going down” and in 2013, they began surveying areas to pinpoint the infestation and taking samples from dying trees in an effort to identify the pathogen.

“To me, the biggest question is, how does it spread?” — Forester J.B. Friday

“We were casting a wide net, trying to figure out what was going on. Some of the areas lined up with a rift zone, so I even talked with Don Thomas, a volcanologist, about elevated subterranean levels of CO2. Some folks suspected geothermal was causing it. We just didn’t know what this was,” he said.

Finally, in 2014, Brian Bushe, diagnostician with CTAHR’s Agriculture Diagnostic Service Center in Hilo, recovered a pathogen.  Lisa Keith, a plant pathologist with the USDA Agriculture Research Service, “nailed down what it was,” Friday said. Never before had it been found on ohia.

While identifying the pathogen marked a huge step forward, in many respects, that only multiplied the questions facing Friday and the rest of the team working on this issue.

“To me, the biggest question is, how does it spread?” Friday said.

The fungus is related to Dutch elm disease, he noted, “and that gives us some insight into where it could be going.”

That disease ravaged elms in Europe and North America in the last century. Treatment of individual trees is possible with injections of a fungicide, but at an annual cost of hundreds of dollars per tree. “But that’s landscaping,” Friday said, “and is out of the realm of real forestry. We’re not going to be flying helicopters over the forest, spraying fungicide.”

Knowing how it arrived in Hawaii might yield important clues about how it disperses. “It didn’t get here on an ohia seedling, since we’re not bringing in ohia seedlings,” Friday said, “but it could have come in on an infected piece of wood.”

Then again, he continued, “it could have moved on an alternate host. Fungi have complex life cycles and have different hosts at different points in their life cycle.”

“If there’s an alternate host for this,” Friday said, referring to Ceratocystis, “and we’re happily moving this other host around, then we don’t know what we’re doing.”

Friday has set up a website, where he and colleagues can post the latest information on the disease.

Ohia Cookies

Keith, the plant pathologist, is more accustomed to working with diseases of commercially grown plants than native species. But the process of narrowing down pathogens is the same in both cases.

About a year ago, “we started collecting samples from a variety of areas,” she continued. Field sampling involved taking down entire dead trees and slicing up “cookies” – cross sections of the trunk.

“Once we started looking at the cookies, we noticed vascular discoloration, everything from mild to a ‘flower burst’ pattern. There’s streaking when you remove the bark. All this led us to believe we would find an organism associated with this,” she said.

She and colleagues were able to quickly isolate the fungus. Lab tests confirmed that this fungus was the disease-causing agent. By clogging up the tree’s vascular system, it prevents water from reaching stems and leaves, resulting in first the wilted leaves, then the dying branches, and finally the death of the tree. From the time the infection becomes apparent in inoculated seedlings, with the first wilted leaves, to the time the seedling dies is a matter of days, which led researchers to call the disease rapid ohia death up to the time the fungus was identified.

Rapid Response?

At the Honolulu meeting, the response to presentations by Keith, Friday, and Hughes was a near-unanimous sentiment that drastic action should be taken, quickly, to prevent the spread of the fungus to other islands.

Christy Martin, CGAPS director, suggested that a name that carries more terror than “ohia wilt” might be a good place to start. “From the public’s perspective, ohia wilt is much less descriptive of what is going on. Should we call it instead rapid ohia death?”

Friday replied that ohia wilt “is the term used by experts” when referring to this class of diseases.

Martin noted wryly that this may be one of the reasons “scientists usually have a hard time communicating these issues to the public.”

Hughes agreed. “Wilt doesn’t quite convey the magnitude of the problem,” he said.

ohia tree Big Island

Foresters didn’t even have a name for the tree disease until last December. It has spread rapidly in the last five years.

Pat Tummons/Environment Hawaii

Bryan Harry, a member of CGAPS and former director of the National Park Service in Hawaii, argued that even in the absence of clear information, when dealing with a risk as grave as this, immediate action was warranted.

“This group should try to go forward with limited knowledge while things are small, rather than wait until it’s scientifically documented and we’re writing an obituary,” he said, eliciting applause from those in attendance.

The Plant Quarantine Branch of the state Department of Agriculture has the legal authority to put emergency rules into place. Such rules are in effect for no more than a year, but they can give resource managers and scientists a breathing space while they learn more about a pest and develop more narrowly tailored permanent rules.

Amy Takahashi, acting head of the Plant Quarantine Branch, was not encouraging about prospects for an emergency rule. “We need to have the science to back it up,” she said.

If there was a ban on the inter-island movement of ohia firewood, she said, “we need to demonstrate that there is fungus in the dead wood.” Also, she said, “we have to have an option for treatment. We can’t put a total ban on transfer” of suspect items. “There needs to be a way for commodities to move.”

(Takahashi was later challenged on this statement. There is, it turns out, no legal requirement that the DOA identify a treatment option before adopting a quarantine rule.)

In addition, Friday pointed out a “big wild card” – if the fungus is being transported by an insect or a plant other than ohia that no one is yet aware of.

The group agreed that surveys of ohia on other islands would be a good first step toward determining if the fungus is confined so far to the Big Island. Members volunteered to join an ad hoc working group to address the issue and cooperate on allocation of limited resources.

In the meantime, the disease continues to move, swiftly, inexorably, across the island of Hawaii. Whether it will spread to other islands, or whether it already has, are questions time alone will tell.

Reprinted with permission from the current issue of Environment Hawaii, a non-profit news publication. The entire issue, as well as more than 20 years of past issues, is available free to Environment Hawaii subscribers at www.environment-hawaii.org. Non-subscribers must pay $10 for a two-day pass.

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