Let me start by reassuring you that we don’t see this as a loss. We’re okay with it, but we recognize how it feels ominous.

Our front ten acres is where we mostly live. The house, barn, (soon to be shed), garden, bees and most of the hazelnut trees are in the front ten. It is also occupied by scrubby evergreens–turns out they’re mostly Scots Pines. We’ve never much liked them, but, trees are trees and the world needs more of them.

We noted some time ago, that the “scrub pines,” especially the small ones, weren’t doing so well. I spoke to the Forester at the Soil Conservation District, and she informed me that it was pine borers, and not to worry since it wouldn’t affect larger trees. Since we didn’t much care about the scrub pines, we shrugged it off.

Until this year. This summer the scrub pines started looking especially shabby. Not all of them, but about sixty percent. Dying, from the bottom up. And not just the little ones, either. Our view became punctuated with the dead and dying. We contacted the new forester, who came out to take a look. 

“Yup,” she agreed, “These are some pretty sick trees.” We looked for borer holes, or obvious signs of insect infestation. The sick trees were almost all Scots Pines (aka Scotch Pines.) They are not Michigan natives. They have escaped from a planted parcel my neighbors put in some twenty five years ago as a cash crop–Christmas trees. They were never harvested, because the husband became ill. Later, on her own, his widow was certainly not equipped to cut and market Christmas trees.

Our Forester returned to her office and, days later responded with a long email about the possibilities, concluding that the problem was the heavier than “normal” rainfall of the past few years. We weren’t buying it. Other trees, nearby and even lower than ours (towards the swamp) were not dying. I got online and looked up all the evergreen diseases, narrowing it to about 3 suspects. It’s surprising how many pests and diseases there are out there!

I decided to send samples to Michigan State University. We needed to know, not only to know what was killing these trees, but because it was obviously spreading, and we needed to know what to do with their remains. It’s a lot of trees. Hundreds. I’d hate to have to burn them all.

But I didn’t know what to sample–needles? bark? root margins? It depends on the pest suspect. So I called the University Department that does the testing. They were wonderful. Send photos–and then they can narrow the field of culprits, to do targeted testing. I sent photos.

No need to test. Even with my blurry photos, the plant pathologist nailed it in a heartbeat. Brown Spot Needle Blight. Sigh. It was one of the three on my list. He identified two other diseases, Pine/Pine Gall, and Pine Borers, but those were merely opportunistic–attacking the already diminished Scots Pines. Brown Spot is relatively new to Michigan, perhaps one of the pests on the move with climate change. That’s probably why the Foresters missed the signs. To her credit though–the increased rainfall is a factor in the spread–just not the mechanism of death that she’d thought.

But what to do about it? It is a fungal disease–spread by airborne spores off the needles. We don’t want to be Patient Zero in some larger infestation. As I suspected, the best thing would be to burn them. All of them. Hundreds of them. We discussed other alternatives. We could fell them in place–leaving a scrappy looking plain of death that would take years to break down. The thing was, we need to get them down, out of the wind, because that’s what spreads the spores. I suggested chipping the bulk of it–which the plant pathologists liked–so long as we don’t move the chips around too much.  The spores will remain on the debris, but without continuing live needles, it will all break down over time. It will also help to build our sandy soils. It’s a good thing we bought a big chipper.

Most importantly, we don’t want it to spread. Any two, or three, needled conifer is at risk. Not necessarily a high risk, but we have some 14 acres of red pine behind the house–and that would be devastating.

This will take us years to clear. We’ll replant as we go, with deciduous trees. We’ll research it first to find healthy varieties that will accommodate a changing climate. Part of the problem was importing non-native trees into the landscape in the first place. It’s not the end of the world…but sometimes… I wonder if you can see it from here.