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Blight strikes hardy madrones

The Pacific Northwest’s distinctive madrone trees appear to be dying in droves in Southern Oregon, victims of a fungus blight possibly made worse by the ongoing drought.

Motorists traveling along Interstate 5 have reported stands of dying madrones from Sunny Valley to Canyonville.

“It certainly is dramatic,” said Jay Walters, stewardship forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry in Roseburg. “Those are some poor-looking madrone trees.”

Known for their orange-red trunks and branches, the evergreen trees have been afflicted with various fungal blights that attack the waxy leaves. ODF officials have identified the most common type of blight as being caused by Phacidiopycnis washingtonensis that was noticeable throughout Oregon in 2014 and continues to be noticeable this year.

Usually, the trees rebound after being stricken by blight. But forestry officials have noticed some branches have died, and they're unsure whether successive years of blight could cause the trees to die completely.

Sometimes all the leaves on a tree turn brown by late winter but the madrone will send out new shoots in spring.

Madrones in Jackson County and other areas of Southern Oregon are afflicted as well, with the blame partially attributed to the stress produced by last winter’s colder-than-normal temperatures as well as three years of drought and low snowpack. 

Lee Winslow, stewardship forester with ODF in Central Point, said he’s seen trees in northern Jackson County and in Josephine County that have been hit by the blight.

Sickly madrones have been seen throughout the Willamette Valley as well as the central coast range.

Winslow said forestry officials are unsure how much long-term stress a madrone can take before it dies. Even if the leaves of a madrone die, the affected branches and the tree itself usually will survive.

Winslow said it’s difficult to pinpoint the reasons why there is such a problem with the trees recently.

“The short answer is: It’s a combination of multiple things going on,” he said.

The tree typically is more drought-tolerant than other trees and is a particularly hardy species that is common from California to British Columbia, Winslow said. 

Madrones aren’t the only species that has been affected in recent years.

The Douglas fir, Oregon’s official state tree, has been attacked by laminated root rot, otherwise known as Phellinus sulphurascens, in the forests of the Oregon Coast and Cascade ranges. Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs have been damaged by black stain root disease, or Leptographium wageneri.

ODF says it has received reports from landowners that suggest diseased Douglas fir plantations may be on the increase in southwestern Oregon.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @reporterdm.