New Alarms About Phytophthora species in U.S. Nurseries


CDFA photo monkeyflower

sticky monkey flower – plant on right is infested by P. tentaculata; photo by Suzanne Rooney-Latham, California Department of Food & Agriculture


In April, I posted a blog reporting on a study in Europe that documented 64 Phytophthora taxa detected in woody plant nurseries or forest restoration plantings. The presence of Phytophthora was widespread,  if not universal:  91% of the 732 nurseries analyzed and 66% of forest and landscape plantings had at least one Phytophthora taxon present.

The risk of serious disease in native European plants appears to be substantial:  one or more of 19 Phytophthora species which can attack native European or widely-planted trees and shubs were isolated from 84% of ornamental planted stands. Hundreds of previously unknown Phytophthora–host associations were observed.

These percentages could be underestimates, because detection of Phytophthora infestation is difficult. One of the principal difficiulties is that the majority of infested plants in nurseries did not display symptoms.

How does the situation in Europe compare to that that in the United States? We don’t know, because no-one has carried out a similarly wide-ranging, nation-wide study. However, some partial studies indicate reason for concern.


Knaus et al. 2015 summarized their own findings from Oregon and those of earlier state-by-state studies:

  • Knaus and colleagues surveyed symptomatic Rhododendron in seven nurseries in Oregon and found evidence of widespread infestation. P. syringae was found in all seven nurseries; P. plurivora in six. Nine other taxa were found in one or a few nurseries. Which Phytophthora species were present varied greatly across nurseries and – within individual nurseries – by season (spring or fall).
  • Surveys by Schwingle and colleagues of 45 nurseries in Minnesota in 2002-2003 and fewer nurseries in 2004 and 2005 found five Phytophthora species.
  • A survey by Warfield and colleagues of 14 North Carolina nurseries in 2003 found three Phytophthora species.
  • Donohue and Lamour surveyed 29 Tennessee nurseries in 2004-2005; they found seven Phytophthora species.
  • A survey of 1,619 California nurseries in 2005 and 2006 carried out by Yakabe and colleagues found eight Phytophthora species (but see below).
  • A survey of 10 Maryland nurseries by Bienapfl and Balci in 2010-2012 found 10 Phytophthora species; six of these were on plants that had arrived recently from West Coast suppliers.
  • A set of repeated surveys of four Oregon nurseries in 2006 – 2009 by Parke and colleagues found 16 Phytophthora species on rhododendron tissues (most of studies looked only at lesions on leaves)

All these studies found the P. citricola complex to be the most widespread. In West Coast nurseries, P. syringae was common.

Knaus et al. conclude that since there is a great amount of heterogeneity among Oregon nurseries, it is likely that, as more nurseries are surveyed, a greater amount of Phytophthora diversity may be discovered within nurseries.

Most of the surveys reported by Knaus and colleagues were done in response to detection of the sudden oak death pathogen (SOD), P. ramorum, on plants shipped from California and Oregon in the interstate plant trade. Since funding for tracking P. ramorum and other Phytophthora species in nursery stock has fallen considerably (see below), it is unlikely that such surveys will be repeated or expanded to other states – despite the apparent widespread presence of these actual or potential pathogens.

Crisis in Native Plant Nurseries in California – What Does it Mean for Other States?

California has discovered the widespread presence of Phytophthora in native plants used to restore native habitats after disturbance, e.g., construction of water or other projects. These pathogens were traced to native plant nurseries. Nursery stock had been planted before the infestation problem was realized – so restoration managers are now trying to clean up both the nurseries and the restoration sites. This situation was discussed during a special session of the 6th SOD Science Symposium in San Francisco in June 2016. More than 170 people attended the session – demonstrating a high level of concern in the native plant community. Abstracts and presentations will be available at

The problem was first discovered in 2012 when a nursery noted severe dieback of sticky monkey flower (Diplacus (Mimulus) aurantiacus). The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) identified the cause as P. tentaculata – which is a federally-designated “quarantine pest”. It had never before been detected in the United States.

Native plant nursery owners and restoration ecologists responded quickly by sending many samples for identification. Between January 2014 and June 2016, CDFA evaluated 1,500 samples from nurseries and field sites. One quarter of the samples were positive for at least one Phytophthora species. In total, 25 species were detected, although 70% of the samples belonged to one of six taxa.

Little is known about root pathogens of California’s native plants. The sample results revealed a long list of newly detected associations.  However, it has also proved especially difficult to detect symptoms on some plants. Finally, since only symptomatic plants were sampled, it is likely that additional plant-Phytophthora associations remain to be detected.

No one knows which plant-Phytophthora associations are capable of creating epidemics of plant disease. At least two species have raised particular concern:

Among the “lessons learned” are two previously identified following the detection of P. ramorum in horticultural nurseries a decade earlier and reinforced now:

  • artificial irrigation of plants in nurseries facilitates infestations and movement of infested plant material; and
  • re-use of infested pots facilitates spread of these infestations.


Therefore, both nursery managers and regulators need to be alert to this risk in all types of nurseries. The necessary changes in nursery practices will take time. See the talk by Alisa Shor from the Parks Conservancy, which operates the nursery for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area when the meeting presentations are posted at Shor described the extensive efforts made by Parks Conservancy nurseries to clean up and adopt new procedures.


Agencies responsible for restoration projects face a daunting task. They have found dozens of Phytophthora taxa at already-planted sites, including the two identified above as federal quarantine species. Managers must develop best management practices that apply to contract specifications for equipment and workers operating on those sites; for nurseries wishing to bid to supply plants; and for planting protocols. Meanwhile, existing restoration regulations require them to restore plant cover quickly – which cannot be done by relying on seed – which is less likely to harbor a pathogen than the containerized plants now used.

As noted above, the high-risk nursery practices identified in this case match those identified over the past decade in response to the spread of sudden oak death (SOD) through nursery stock. Ted Sweicki, an ecologist long engaged on SOD and related issues and now advising the restoration agencies, noted that it is easier to prevent introduction of a Phytophthora to a site then to clean up the site afterwards. He advocated adoption of systems approach to mitigate Phytophthora presence in nurseries. Ted said this is not a new idea! However, adoption of such practices has been far too slow in the horticultural trade. Ted was hopeful that this new crisis in California would have a different result because:

  • Owners of native plant nurseries are strongly concerned about the environment;
  • Restoration agencies are averse to being responsible for introduction of Phytophthora species to their lands; and
  • These agencies make purchases that are sufficiently large to empower the agencies to compel nurseries to comply with strict protocols.

People in other states should not rest easy. There is no reason to think this problem is limited to California. Other states need to be looking at the diversity of Phytophthora species in their nurseries and plantings. But are they doing so?

Meanwhile, federal funds that have supported studies of the genetics of P. ramorum in both West Coast forests and in nurseries are rapidly disappearing. The information provided by these studies has been crucial to tracing movement of various strains of the pathogen.

As noted in my earlier blog, none of the 59 Phytophthora taxa thought to be alien in Europe had been intercepted at European ports of entry. In the U.S., it has not been determined how the P. tentaculata detected in 2012 was introduced.  Authorities suspect it was introduced on plant imports.

These situations reinforce the importance of APHIS promptly finalizing its 2013 proposed revision to regulations governing imported plants []. The proposed rule would establish APHIS’ authority to require foreign plant suppliers to adopt “critical control point”-type systems approaches to improve the cleanliness of plants intended for export to the United States.  Such an approach is authorized by both a North American regional standard (RSPM#24; go here) and an international standard (ISPM#36; go here) for plant protection.

You can give APHIS a push by writing your member of Congress and Senators. Ask them to urge the Secretary of Agriculture to finalize this proposal.

As regards plants being shipped within the country, the U.S. nursery trade is working with federal and state regulators to develop and encourage adoption of similar, but voluntary, integrated systems approaches to minimize pest presence on plants being sold interstate. This proposed approach is being tested by eight nurseries across the country. However, full adoption is still years away. To learn more about the “SANC” program (“A Systems Approach to Nursery Certification”), go here.


See also


Jung, T. et al. 2015 “Widespread Phytophthora infestations in European nurseries put forest, semi-natural and horticultural ecosystems at high risk of Phytophthora disease” Forest Pathology. November 2015; available from Resource Gate

Knaus, B.J., V.J. Fieland, N.J. Grunwald. 2015. Diversity of Foliar Phytophthora  Species on Rhododendron in Oregon Nurseries. Plant Disease Vol 99, No. 10 326 – 1332


Posted by Faith Campbell

Why doesn’t state government take action to contain pests that threaten to cost 20 million Californians $1,800 apiece?

(The total cost will exceed $36 billion – which will be borne largely by homeowners and municipalities – meaning their taxpayers.  The state will bear little of this cost.)

PB036597 fate-sm smwillow tree in Tijuana River riparian area felled by KSHB.  Photo by John Boland; used by permission

(To see more scary photos of the damage along the Tijuana River taken by John Boland, go here.

The polyphagous (PSHB) and Kuroshio (KSHB) shot hole borers pose a great threat to many tree species in California – native species in natural and urban settings; non-native species used in plantings; and agricultural crops. Yet the state government is frozen in inaction.

These two shot hole borers attack hundreds of tree species; at least 40 are reproductive hosts. For details, view the write-up here or visit the UC Riverside website here.

Some of the important reproductive hosts for PSHB are listed here; those that are also known to support reproduction of the Kuroshio shot hole borer are marked by an asterisk.

  • Box elder (Acer negundo)
  • Big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) *
  • California sycamore (Platanus racemosa)
  • Several willows (Salix spp.)
  • Cottonwoods  (Populus fremontii & P. trichocarpa)
  • Several  oaks (Quercus agrifolia, Q. engelmannii, Q. lobata)

Several widespread exotic species also support PSHB reproduction: they include the invasive castor bean (Ricinus communis) and widely-planted London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia).

US Forest Service scientist Greg McPherson has analyzed the vulnerability to PSHB of urban forests in cities in three regions of southern California: the Inland Empire, Coastal Southern California, and Southwest Desert. Together, these comprise 4,244 sq. miles and have 20.5 million residents. Dr. McPherson found that:

1) Approximately 26.8 million trees – 37.8% of the region’s 70.8 million trees – are at risk. Trees at risk include

  • 5 million coast live oaks,
  • 4 million ash,
  • 3 million sycamores and plane trees,
  • 9 million stone fruit or flowering Prunus species,
  • 5 million avocadoes, and
  • 8 million citrus trees.

2) The cost for removing and replacing the 26.8 million trees would be approximately $36.2 billion. This amount averages to $1,768 per capita.

3) The value of ecosystem services forgone each year due to the loss of these trees is $1.4 billion.

4) These estimates are conservative because they:

  • do not include costs associated with damage to people and property from tree failures, as well as increased risk of fire and other hazards
  • may undervalue benefits of trees to human health and well-being; and
  • do not include newly detected host species or the shot borers’ spread.

These disasters are highly likely to occur given the extent of current infestations and difficulty in curtailing spread of the beetle/fungus complex.


Natural areas – especially riparian areas – are also at risk.  John Boland reports that 70% of willows studied in the Tijuana River riparian area on the California/Mexico border were infested by KSHB.  Tree branches and boles weakened by beetle attack broke in the first winter storms in early 2016.  In some sections, “native riparian forest … went from a dense stand of tall willows to a jumble of broken limbs in just a few months.”  Trees growing in the wettest parts of the riparian area were most heavily attacked and damaged.  Three highly invasive plant species – castor bean, salt cedar, and giant reed – are barely or not attacked by KSHB.  The result of the damage to native willows and likely proliferation of the invasive plants is likely to be significant alteration of the entire biological system.

(While no one knows how KSHB reached the Tijuana River, John Boland says there is a greenwaste “recycling” center in the valley. See picture below, taken by John Boland.)


Regulatory action could help protect wildland, rural, and urban forests in the rest of the state – and possibly beyond. Scientists’ analysis of climate indicates that most of the urban and agricultural areas in California are at risk. The scientists have also begun analyzing the potential risk to other parts of country.


Why is the California government so unwilling to tackle a threat of this magnitude?

I have written about this inaction several times as it applies to the goldspotted oak borer. See my blogs on 1) California’s inaction on firewood in July 2015; 2) GSOB and firewood in September 2015;  3) contrasting states’ action on mussels with inaction on firewood posted in December 2015;  and 4) the threats to oaks, posted in April 2016.

In October CISP joined an eminent forest entomologist, Dr. David Wood of the Department of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley.  We petitioned the California Department of Food and Agriculture to regulate movement of firewood within the state. CDFA refused, saying that the absence of control points through which firewood could be funneled made efforts to regulate its movements impractical. (For copies of our letter and CDFA’s reply, contact me through the “contact” button on the CISP website.)

While there are many questions about practical aspects of implementing and enforcing such regulations, I do not believe they are insurmountable.

I concede that CDFA has provided significant funds for firewood outreach campaigns. But people care about the threat posed by these pests and want CDFA to act. In the meantime, concerned people have formed formal partnerships linking local, county, state, and federal officials and academics to coordinate efforts to manage both GSOB and the PSHB and KSHB.  Groups’ efforts can be viewed here and here. CalFire and the California Fire Wood Task Force are active participants.

During a recent conference call sponsored by the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association’ Pest Prevention Committee, participants reinforced the damaging consequences of CDFA’s  inaction:

  • While scientists are developing new tools for detection of the polyphagous and Kuroshio beetles and the fungi, there are no funds to support their use in a more intensive detection trapping effort!!!!! Call participants discussed various potential funding sources (e.g., from competitive grant programs operated by various agencies).  Some survey efforts have been funded – by USDA APHIS:
    1. UC Riverside Professor Richard Stouthamer received Farm Bill §10007 funds for two years to develop traps and lures for PSHB.
    2. CDFA participates in a national woodborer survey which is funded by APHIS.
  • In the absence of CDFA designation of PSHB, KSHB, or GSOB as regulated pests, neither state nor county agencies have a firm foundation on which to base regulations to curtail movement of firewood, greenwaste, or other pathways by which these pests can be spread to new areas.

It is clear from the discussion during the call that many people understand the need for regulations to ban movement of firewood out of southern California. But so far they have not succeeded in building sufficient political support to bring this about.


Meanwhile, other federal agencies are beginning to perceive the risk posed by these pests – and are struggling to develop responses. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is trying to develop strategies to protect the forested wetlands, which are habitats for the endangered least Bell’s vireo (a bird) and other endangered species. However, the USFWS lacks funds to carry forward desired detection and other programs. The USFWS offices in California are trying to engage agency leadership on this threat. So far, Endangered Species Act §7 requirements have not restricted removal of infested trees in wetlands already invaded by PSHB or KSHB.


Santa Monica National Recreation Area is the first National Park Service unit to pay attention. I have written in the past that the National Park Service should adopt a nation-wide policy banning visitors from bringing their own firewood to campgrounds (see my blogs from August and October 2015). In the absence of a nation-wide policy, action by individual units is important.


The USDA Forest Service is already engaged, especially with detection and outreach. However, the USFS also does not have nation-wide policy restricting campers from taking their own firewood to campgrounds on National forests.


Many Californians are pushing for action … they need our help! If you live in California, contact your state legislators. If you live elsewhere, your forests are also at risk from the state’s failure to act.  So, if you know someone who lives there, ask that person to contact his/her legislators. Ask the legislators to demand state designation of PSHB, KSHB, and GSOB as quarantine pests and adoption of state firewood regulations.



Memorandum from Greg McPherson, USDA Forest Service, to John Kabashima Re: Potential Impact of PSHB and FD on Urban Trees in Southern California, April 26, 2016


Posted by Faith Campbell