Horse chestnut at risk
GROW:An increasing number of these stately, lofty trees are being lost to a highly damaging bacterial disease
IT MAY NOT be native to Ireland but the horse chestnut is still one of our loveliest trees and a stately, lofty presence in our parks and gardens, where its giant candlewick blossoms flag the start of summer and its glossy, chocolate-coloured conkers mark its end. But not, perhaps, for much longer.
As a result of the recent spread throughout Europe of the damaging bacterial disease identified as bleeding canker (Pseudomana syringae pv. aesculi), an increasing number of these trees are now being lost from the Irish landscape, with even young specimens succumbing.
In the Botanic Gardens, director Matthew Jebb estimates that they’re losing one tree every year to the disease, while in the Phoenix Park (the first place in Ireland where the disease was confirmed, in 2010), several horse chestnut trees along Chesterfield Avenue have had to be felled. A further two-dozen of the park’s infected trees have received tree surgery, while others are undergoing experimental treatments, all in the hope of arresting its spread.
So where exactly did this disease come from? In Britain (where almost half of its horse chestnut trees are now infected, and confirmed cases of the disease were first recorded as early as 2000-2001), studies suggest that it came from Europe. Most probably it evolved from an Indian strain of the disease – a more benign version that affects only the leaves of Indian horse chestnuts rather than its woody parts. Equally worrying, genome sequencing of the disease in the UK suggests that it probably originated from a single recent introduction into the country – in other words, on imported, infected plant tissue.
Ask how this damaging disease spread through Europe might have been curtailed and you’ll open up a can of worms that raises troubling questions about the nature of free trade and its potentially devastating consequences for national plant biosecurity. Prof Clive Brasier, the highly regarded British plant pathologist specialising in tree diseases, neatly summed up the dilemma by describing it as trade at any cost, arguing that the UK’s independent plant health controls have been sacrificed in the interests of EU membership. Pointing to the dramatic increases in the frequency of damaging plant pathogen importations over the past decade, he suggested that the UK is now in danger of losing much of its historic tree and forest heritage. His blunt conclusion was that the European plant security “door” is, quite simply, off its hinges.
By way of example, Brasier made the point that since 2011, at least five new “events” have been documented in Britain, each one of them potentially catastrophic in terms of tree health. Amongst them is a devastatingly aggressive fungal disease already affecting mainland Europe’s ash trees (Chalara fraxinea) and found in the UK for the first time earlier this year in a Buckinghamshire nursery, in trees that had been freshly imported from Holland.