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Risky plants: Rhododendron, lilac plants sold locally might have tree-killing disease

State agencies are warning that plants sold locally at Walmart and Rural King potentially have a disease that can infect and kill oak trees, which dominate the forests of southern Ohio.

David Apsley, a natural resource specialist for The Ohio State University Extension in Jackson County, is one of the leads in the effort to make sure the oak death pathogen caused by Phytophthora ramorum doesn’t affect the acres and acres of oak trees that make up the forests of southeastern Ohio.

“We have a lot to lose if this thing were to potentially take hold,” he said.  “We are being extra cautious. It is a water mold and it has never been known to take hold on the East Coast, we are not even certain if it can take hold here.”

He said that were the pathogen has been established on western coastal states, it has been devastating to oak trees.

“Mainly, this response is to be extra cautious, because we have so much to lose,” Apsley said. “We have a little more than eight million acres of forest in Ohio.”

The warning came from the Ohio Department of Agriculture after tests detected sudden oak death pathogen, which caused oaks and other tree species in the coastal areas of California and Oregon to die.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service learned that potentially infected plants were shipped to Walmart and Rural King stores in South Point, New Boston, Chillicothe, Gallipolis, Jackson, New Boston, Waverly. The specific lots of plants were in the stores from this spring from March 1 to June 1.

Apsley said they are unsure if the pants were delivered to stores in Kentucky or West Virginia.

“Every Walmart and Rural King in southeast Ohio received some of this plant material,” he said. “And we know stores in Kentucky and West Virginia received some of these plants, but I don’t have information if it was ever confirmed on their plant material. I do know they received plant materials from the same general shipments. But it is pretty likely, I think.”

Ohio State University Extension, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, and local Soil and Water Conservation Districts are working with the ODA and USDA APHIS to provide support to customers who purchased rhododendron plants from Walmart or Rural King stores with the potential to spread sudden oak death to native woodlands in the region.

Ohio has a lot of industries tied to using oak trees, plus the acorns the trees produce are eaten by wildlife.

“Oaks are an important part of the ecosystem down here,” Apsley said.

Oak trees contribute greatly to Ohio’s $26 billion forest products industry, provide vital habitat for many wildlife species, and are important for tourism in southeastern Ohio.

The ODA and partners are encouraging homeowners who purchased rhododendron or lilac plants to monitor the plant for signs of disease, including leaf spots and shoot dieback and to properly dispose of the plants.

The recommended method of disposal is double bagging, including the root ball, in heavy-duty trash bags for disposal into a sanitary landfill. Do not compost or dispose of the plant material in municipal yard waste. Garden tools used on any affected plants should be sanitized with 10 percent bleach solution (one-part bleach to nine-parts water) for 30 minutes.

Apsley emphasized the agencies are here to help those who purchased these plants.

“If you need help getting these plants removed, we are glad to help,” he said. “And we want to get these sites reported, so we can follow up with monitoring.”

If you think you purchased any of these potentially infected plants, contact Paige Matney, OSU Extension Lawrence County, 740-533-4322 for assistance with reporting, monitoring, and proper disposal of potentially infected plants.

You can also visit the following site to learn more about sudden oak death and submit a report: http://go.osu.edu/SuddenOakDeath.