Ornamental chitalpa may have a downside

READERS: Last week I answered a question for J.M. in Rio Rancho about planting a chitalpa tashkentensis in his landscaping. As an ornamental they sure are pretty, so I recommended yes, the chitalpa was a nifty tree. I’ve since been taught that the chitalpa stock available nowadays is very likely infected by an incurable disease called “Xylella fastidiosa.”

Ms. J.C. of Rio Rancho took the time and offered me, in a most pleasant, polite and informative manner, lots of pertinent information about the chitalpa. Evidently, she has several mature and young chitalpas and they were/are declining. So, she researched what could be the cause of her trees having lots of brown leaves and others in her “housing development landscaping” showing quite a bit of branch die-back.

On the NMSU website she found papers describing the malady in her trees. Written by Natalie Goldberg @ NMSU, Extension Plant Pathologist, the two forwarded links taught J.C. & me so much about the crappy looking and declining chitalpa trees. The worse part is there is nothing that can be done to prevent or cure the infected trees, sigh!

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Now remember I said the chitalpa is sterile meaning it makes no seed from which to grow a new crop. That means chitalpa are started from cuttings. So, if the “mom” tree is carrying the disease it’s going to be in the cuttings, too. With that you have a young tree that might not show signs of infection initially but with age it’ll probably wear signs of the disease.

This disease is spread by an insect, “most notably sharpshooters” (to me they look like a meaner, larger, more colorful leafhopper bug, and we all know they spread disease like nobody’s business). Simply put, when these bugs feed on a tree they inject a bacterium back into the tree, so the bacteria spreads. Sort of like the way mosquitos spread malaria if you will.

The tree infected with Xylella fastidiosa bacterium have a clogged vessel system so the trees can’t and don’t get the life-giving water to the leaf surface. Since the tree looks thirsty, your first instinct is to offer more water. But that doesn’t help. Then as the season progresses the leaves brown, they crisp, then fall away. Sometimes you’ll get the branch die back and eventually the tree succumbs.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have several seasons of a sweet, ornamental flowering tree, but know that having a chitalpa could mean heartbreak. I’m not sure if having an ill chitalpa could be a way of spreading the disease further since it’s spread by the “sharpshooter” bug, but you’d never want to take cuttings because they’d be infected for sure. And remember, there is no cure for the malady.

So now, having been offered this wealth of information, it’ll be tough to suggest planting a chitalpa. I love the look of the blooms and the tree not being “messy” like either of its parents, but wow, it’s a tough call now. Do you invest in and tend a tree that offers such lovely blooms that do feed a myriad of pollinators during season, knowing that with each season the tree will decline? ARGH! This is Mother Nature at her worst!

But I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m anti-chitalpa! I really like the look and habit of the tree but now it’s not easy recommending a tree that could very likely be infected with Xylella fastidiosa and no way to check. Sometimes learning is tough. But again, thanks to Ms. J.C. for taking her time to open my eyes to this tragic malady of the chitalpa.

Please, continue to be “Happy while you’re out there Diggin’ In”!

Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, P.O. Drawer J, Albuquerque, NM 87103, or to features@abqjournal.com.

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