I recently got a call from a guy selling some woodland property in the Coast Range. A prospective buyer recently told him that he had Swiss needle cast (SNC) and so was not interested in buying the property. It is not hard to find the disease in western Oregon. It is a native disease of Douglas-fir and is wide spread from the coast into the Cascades. But this fellow was calling for some guidance about how to respond to this concern. Was it reasonable? How can he gauge its impact on his young forest stand?
He already knows how to recognize SNC when he sees it: from a distance it makes a tree look paleand sparse. This is because the fungus is developing in the needles, gradually clogging the stomates, which is where the leaf exchanges water vapor, carbon dioxide and oxygen. Up close with a hand lens you can look on the underside of a diseased needle and see tiny black dots in neat rows where healthy white dots (the stomates) should be visible. In some places or during seasons when the disease is severe, this causes many needles to turn yellow, and eventually to drop (to cast), giving the recognizable symptoms. If enough stomates get plugged, and or enough needles are cast the disease begins to affect photosynthesis, and possibly growth, the crux of the caller’s question.
“The key to understanding the impacts from Swiss needle cast,” says Dave Shaw, OSU Extension Forest Health Specialist and Director of the SNC Cooperative, “is whether the needle retention on the tree is good or not. If the tree is retaining around 3 years of needles, then growth should be close to normal. The impacts occur when needle retention is below three years, and especially when it drops to 2 years or less.”
So, the question for the caller is: “What is your average needle retention in these stands?” If near 3 years, he can tell folks that yeah, the disease is around but the stand is doing ok.
To count needle retention, use binoculars and cruise the stand, taking the needle retention from the mid crown, south side of tree, and not the apical stem, but the 4-yr and older side branches. There is a good illustration of branching and needle cohorts on page 3 of Swiss needle cast of Douglas-fir in Oregon. This time of year is good. Even if the stand is discolored a little, needle retention is the key factor.
More information about SNC can be found on the SNC Cooperative website, which has aerial survey data, research findings and even a Stand Assessment Tool that provides a more quantitative approach to assessing impacts on growth.