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Texas Phoenix palm decline confirmed on native sabal

SEFFNER — After weeks spent genetically sequencing a mysterious disease that's killing Florida's state tree, the results are in: The deadly Texas Phoenix palm decline has found another victim.

Researchers suspected it was killing sabal palms, but they weren't sure until the DNA results returned. Palm decline was found in Florida palms in 2006 and was previously known to kill Canary Island date palms, edible date palms, wild date palms and queen palms.

Sabal palms affected by the disease have been found in Hillsborough, Manatee and, most recently, DeSoto counties.

Fears that sabal palms, a native species, could be wiped out by this disease have prompted the University of Florida to give palm researchers in Fort Lauderdale a $10,000 grant to track down which bugs are spreading the disease.

Researchers believe it's being transmitted between trees by "plant-hoppers" — a type of bug that sucks the sap out of the palms. The sap is where the disease is stored.

"It's like looking for a needle in the haystack," Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researcher Monica L. Elliott said.

This will be the first time Florida researchers have searched for the insect or insects spreading the disease. They didn't have the funds before. But now that it's affecting a native species, it's garnering more attention, Elliott said.

Because it's native, it'll be much harder to stop, she said. There are just too many trees. And Elliott doesn't suggest anyone inoculate wild palms with the Tree Saver antibiotic, which has been said to help prevent the disease.

"When you start dealing with native areas you start dealing with the whole ecosystem," she said. "We don't know the long-term effect."

Forest extension agent Rob Northrop and three UF researchers are compiling literature to figure out the consequences if the sabal palm became extinct.

Northrop also is going to study whether Tree Saver really does help prevent palm decline. People who use it often report that it's helpful, but it's never been scientifically proved.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

>>Fast facts

Phytoplasma to blame

What's killing the trees: Texas Phoenix palm decline is caused by a phytoplasma, a bacterium without a cell wall.

How it spreads: Scientists suspect it's spread by plant-hopping bugs that suck up nutrients containing the phytoplasma.

Symptoms: They include dead lower fronds, the death of the spear leaf — the newest frond in the canopy — and falling fruit. Sabal palm fronds turn bronze or reddish-brown, then gray-brown.

Prevention: It's possible on a small scale. An antibiotic called Tree Saver can be bought at www.palmtreesaver.com. An injection costs $1 to $4 and is recommended three to four times a year. Arborists often provide the inoculation, too.

Texas Phoenix palm decline confirmed on native sabal 09/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 6:05pm]
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