by Andrea Laine, EMGV
You know you’re a serious gardener when you get excited about preparing a sample for the NCSU Plant Disease and Insect Clinic. I just wish I had engaged this problem-solving staff sooner and I hope you will learn from my experience.
Over the last three or four years, the mature evergreen azaleas in my landscape – of which there were many – began to succumb to a sudden dieback. Where there was once dark green glossy leaves and abundant flowering, seemingly overnight a swath of vertical branches would turn brown and die. I was alarmed, but knew not what to do. So, I did next to nothing: I trimmed out the crispy parts and hoped for the best.
I am ashamed to admit this experience was after my master gardener training. In training we certainly learned about the services provided by the Plant Disease and Insect Clinic, but either I didn’t think my plant problem was important enough to bother someone at NC State, or I was too lazy to prepare a sample. Probably a little of both.
Inspired to act
Fast forward to this summer when two things happened that inspired me to act. First, the mysterious dieback attacked a stand of azaleas that are a key structural element in the design of my landscape (see photos above). And secondly, I noticed the exact symptoms on a few azaleas in a Durham neighborhood far from my own. The problem no longer belonged just to me; I resolved to seek a diagnosis on behalf of all of us.
My first step was to collect a soil sample from the vicinity of the azalea with the most recent dieback. The results showed that the soil pH was too high – 6.2 – where azaleas prefer a number between 4.7 and 5.3. Phosphorus was high and potassium was a little low. While all that is not a great situation for these acid-loving plants, it did not explain the sudden dieback. I needed to delve deeper.
I decided to access the NCSU Plant Disease and Insect Clinic. (You’ll find a direct link to it on the right side of this blog’s homepage as well as in the list of resources below.) I dug up a smaller azalea that had browned out a year or so earlier, left a good bit of the roots and soil intact and plunked it into a double plastic bag. Back indoors, I downloaded a submission form from the Clinic’s website, filled it out to the best of my ability and brought it and the sample to the master gardener office where I enlisted the help of our County Ag Agent Dr. Ashley Troth. Ashley submitted the sample on my behalf and we included digital images of the affected plants in my landscape. The more information a client can provide, the better will be the diagnosis and recommendations.
A week later the diagnosis was in: Symptoms are typical of Phomopsis dieback, a fungus disease. “The disease can be very serious if the fungus moves into larger branches and the base of the plant. This dieback was found down into the base of the plant submitted,” wrote Shawn Butler, an ornamentals diagnostician. “Presence of this disease,” he continued, “often is an indicator of stressed or injured plants. Photos show that there is probably a problem in the root zones of these plants. No root rot pathogens were isolated from these roots. If the plants have been water-stressed in the past, then that might be the primary problem.”
He also sent a root sample out to check for presence of damaging nematode populations. Some parasitic nematodes were found but populations were not high enough to cause damage.
A new pledge
I will take away at least two lessons from this experience (and I hope you do, too). The first is to seek help sooner, and the second is to not ignore long-established shrubbery. (These azaleas were planted at least 20 years ago.) The plants I inherited with my landscape deserve tender-loving-care equal to that which I provide to the plants I personally select for the landscape.
Resources & Further Reading
How to submit a sample to the clinic: https://projects.ncsu.edu/cals/plantpath/extension/clinic/submit-sample.html
Fees for the Clinic’s diagnostic services: https://projects.ncsu.edu/cals/plantpath/extension/clinic/services.html
Azalea care – a factsheet from Clemson University
A comment about old azaleas from Louisiana State University