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Fungal diseases becoming more common among blue spruce trees across West Michigan

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Colorado blue spruce trees across West Michigan face rapid decline due to various fungal diseases. Homeowners often don't notice the disease until it's too late. (WWMT/Will Haenni)

Colorado blue spruce trees have long been one of the more popular conifers for landscaping across the upper Midwest. Now, diseases are killing blue spruce trees across West Michigan and trees are declining at a rapid rate.

Members of the pine family, the trees are efficient growers and have a beautiful blueish foliage.

According to the Michigan State University Extension, the key symptom of spruce decline is branch dieback, which usually starts with a browning of the lower branches then progresses up the tree over the course of two to four years.

Darren Williams manages 4 Seasons Tree Service, based in Kalamazoo. He estimated his crews have taken out over 500 blue spruce trees in recent years due to fungal diseases known as needlecasts.

"It's a fungus that gets on the current year's shoots, and that's what begins to cause needle drop," Williams said.

Resources from the MSU Extension on the topic stated factors contributing to the decline included environmental changes, poor site conditions and new pathogens. Originally native to the arid Rocky Mountain region, Michigan's wetter and more humid climate in the summertime also proves ideal for fungal infections to thrive.

"If you start seeing needles drop, you can actually call your local professional arborist and they can come out and actually treat it to prevent any further fungus," Williams said.

Fungicides may be effective in preventing or controlling the disease, but will only help with future growth.

Williams said most people catch the signs too late, and the tree ends up needing removal. Tree removal can become costly, however, which Williams suggested may further the disease spread.

"They can't afford to get the tree down, then it's in the area and just tacks to other places," he said.

Brian Litchfield, a freelance master foreman climber that works in the tree removal business, said he's also seen the problem become much more prevalent in recent years. He said canker diseases were also very prevalent in the area, which are caused by a fungi that infects branches or the main stem of trees, causing them to ooze resin.

"When I see a healthy blue spruce, it's usually surrounded by several other kinds of young trees," Litchfield said. He said the sharing of nutrients and chemicals between species can help fight many problems.

Litchfield also suggested those considering replanting pine trees to plant white pines. He said they seemed to be doing very well in the area.

While this may come as bad news for your home's landscape, rest assured Christmas tree farms shouldn't be affected.

Dan Wahmhoff is the president of Wahmhoff Farms Nursery. He said the use of fungicides in the springtime limits the spread of diseases throughout the year. He said spruce decline has significantly reduced the demand for larger blue spruce trees meant for landscaping. One MSU extension resource offered alternatives to the Colorado blue spruce species.

It may not be a lost cause for the species, however. Planting blue spruce trees on sites with conditions they favor, which include full sunlight, good air movement and excellent soil drainage may help their rate of survival.

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