Ash Dieback Disease in England
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Ash trees are dying of a fungus infection in England, as they have done on the continent of Europe for some time now. The British news usually blames spores from Holland as the cause of the disease. Fungi reproduce by forming spores by meiosis from mushrooms, or fruiting bodies as they are called, as well as by mitosis, in which the cells of the fungus divide in two to create a larger body of the fungus. Like all species, they reproduce more when conditions are favorable, and the conditions that are favorable to mold and fungi are cold and wet. Most of the reproduction of fungus thus takes place underground, where it is cold and damp, and not in the air. In the past there has been some confusion about the asexually reproducing fungus being the same species as the sexually reproducing mushrooms.

The summer of 2012 was very cold and wet in England. They called it the "wettest summer since records began". I called it "The Big Wet". We had a rowan tree, which is also called a mountain ash although supposedly no relation to ash according to scientific nomenclature even though it looks like an ash. For years, travelling oddjob men had stopped by the house to tell us the tree had a fungus and offering to cut it down. We left it standing because it was still growing and producing leaves. Unfortunately, cold and wet is good for mold and fungus but not for trees and the summer of the Big Wet the rowan tree did not produce any leaves but stayed bare. It wasn't dead and if it had been in the back yard away from the property line we would have left it alone, but it was too close to cars and pedestrians passing by so we had to remove it.

Wildlife experts say to let the infected trees stay because an infected tree can live for many years before it dies and when it dies, the dead wood will provide homes and food to many wildlife creatures. There are some bird species that only nest in dead wood and their numbers are declining because we cut down dead trees and put them through a woodchipper rather than leave them standing. In retrospect, we should have left the trunk standing. However, it probably would not have provided nesting space for any birds because it was seriously damaged by fungus which began eating its roots as soon as the rest of the tree was gone. 

This is a stump from a rowan tree that was infected or parasitized by a fungus. See Fungus Growing in Body of Tree for more on this tree and this fungus.

They say that the dying of the ash trees was caused by spores landing on the leaves. That is highly unlikely as it takes a long time for a fungus to parasitize a tree to death. I am inclined to believe that they think in those terms because spores in the are landing on leaves is roughly equivalent to the equally-erroneous conception of germ-based theory of disease. Germs or spores are all around us. It is only when the terrain or environment, be it our bodies or a tree, is weakened that the germs or spores are able to take advantage of it and invade the body.

So the spores being produced in the Autumn of 2012 when the English ash trees began dying of ashdieback disease are not the cause of the disease. It is far more likely that the trees were infected with the fungus growing in English soil underneath them which made its way up through the roots. This fungus could have lived and died with the tree when the tree died of old age if the tree had remained healthy.

Naming the cause of the ashes dying as "ashdieback" disease is a common way of naming diseases to make them sound like they are diseases and not just symptoms. Ashdieback just means the ashes are dying. In fact, ashdieback is not so much a disease as a parasite that took advantage of the ashes' disease or weakness caused by so much cold and wet. The disease -- dis ease -- is the weakness and susceptibility caused by being cold and wet for such a long time. It doesn't  matter which fungus eats it, it will still get eaten. Usually it will be parasitized  by the fungus that likes it best and is best adapted to that particular species but if, for some reason, a tree was growing in a area of soil populated by another type of fungus, that fungus would be the one to take advantage of the opportuntiy for a good meal, nice home and chance to raise its young.

In fact, one of the things that they don't often mention, is that, while fraxinus pseudo albicans is found in the dead ash trees, the fruiting bodies that come out of it after it is cut down are often from other fungi. One fungus may dominate, but fungi are all around us and all of them will take advantage of a weak host.

So, what to do if you have an infected tree? Of course, experimental "scientists" of the kill-and-burn persuasion say all infected trees must be cut down to stop the epidemic. The main problem with that is that the "epidemic" is caused by a fungus growing in the ground. After the chopping, the fungus will still be there. It may even be an edible species.

Fungus and trees, like all predators and prey, have established a rhythm where sometimes the prey is stronger and grows in abundance, and sometimes the predators are better able to overpower the prey. In this example, the ash trees are the prey and the fungus growing in the ground. It can be any fungus that can eat the tree. The particular species identification is irrelevant.

So, what can you do if one of your trees is infected by a fungus?

There's probably not much you can do to a keep a tree in the open air warm and dry, but another thing that funguses don't like is alkaline soil or minerals. Adding minerals to the soil around the tree will help it grow strong, just like adding minerals to the diet will help keep us strong. Minerals will also interfere with the ability of molds to join in and help the fungus grow.

You can add minerals to the soil by putting in any appropriate, full-array mineral fertilizer such as rock dust or dolomite powder (which is a form of rock dust.) If you burn garden waste, or have a barbecue during the summer, you can spread the ashes around the trunk of the tree. You can also use fallen leaves to spread around the tree. Leaves contain the minerals that the tree or plant brought up through the roots during the growing season to feed its seeds. Perhaps this alkaline mulch will even add a little warmth to the tree during the cold winds of winter that will be a help to it in fighting off the fungus.

Are these spores a threat to humans or animals?

Yes. A fungus spore can lodge in the sinuses and, if not turfed out by the mucous membranes or immune system, can grow there. People with "post-nasal drip" or blocked sinuses may have started with breathing in a spore from a fungus. See Spores for more information.

The fungal infection that killed this mountain ash (rowan tree) has been positively identified as honey fungus ( armillaria mellea). Honey fungus is a tree eater and can kill many different kinds of trees. Ash, however, is not one of them. Ash is resistant to honey fungus. Many trees are resistant to many fungal infections and susceptible to some. The particular pathogen is irrelevant. If the tree is old or weak, and/or if there have been conditions favorable to fungus growth, some trees will succumb. That is the way nature works.

You can go through biosecurity measures like disinfecting  your shoes when you walk in the wood, but it is rather pointless. Spores can travel in the air much further than they can travel on your shoes, and the main offensive line against the spores being able to germinate in another wood will be the plants and animals already living there, who will compete with them for space and/or eat them.

At least the honey fungus that ate my tree is edible, and I can count on a good supply of mushroom soup every autumn for several years to come as the underground fungus continues to eat through the roots. I have been unable to find out if the trumpet-shaped mushrooms that will grow from the ashdieback fungus are edible or not.

Another silver lining to the fungal overgrowth caused by the Big Wet is that this has a bumper year for truffles in England. Many truffle-hunters are making a lot of money with this year's abundant crop.

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