Blossoming dogwood trees are signs of colorful, new life in springtime and towering green shrubs other seasons of the year. But in recent years they’ve become haunting evidence of a deadly mystery.
“When I was younger they didn’t look like this,” said Frances Waite, with the South Carolina Forestry Commission. “They’re declining, and we’re not really sure why.”
Earlier this month agency members traveled through Lowcountry communities to take samples of dying dogwoods.
In some places the trees’ branches are turning leafless.
Waite said she’s been aware of the issue for some time and has been in communication with the Forestry Commission’s Insect and Disease entomologist David Jenkins.
“Last summer Frances called and said she was seeing dogwood mortality,” Jenkins said.
The state has been no stranger to wet weather since 2015, when the 1,000-year flood dropped 20-plus inches across South Carolina. Hurricane Matthew brought an additional deluge last October that Jenkins said “didn’t help.”
“We thought that it…must (be) too wet, …” he said. “It’s the nail in the coffin.”
A number of trees are also older and more susceptible to such damage, Jenkins said. He estimated most dogwoods in town are 60-80 years old, though they can live much longer but aren’t going “to wear damage as well.”
Jenkins also told the Journal Scene the problem is not just one occurring in Summerville but also in Kingstree and Georgetown, where plant experts took samples last summer, and since then have been monitoring the specific dogwoods.
If not caused by flooding directly, the mystery behind mortality could still be linked to excessive standing water or a few other sources including over-pruning and a deadly water mold called phytophthora.
Meaning “plant destroyer,” the mold attacks roots and also other trees, though Jenkins said “dogwoods are really susceptible.”
“(The mold likes) wet soil because the spores actually swim,” he said.
The local samples are currently under examination at Clemson University and experts should know results in a matter of days, Jenkins said.
He also blamed dogwoods’ locations outside of well-shaded areas, where exposure to long-term sunlight can affect the trees’ ability to conduct photosynthesis at maximum capacity. With a reduction in the vital plant process, young dogwoods can still thrive, but ones nearing the end of their life span will often struggle.
“Reduced photosynthesis does end up hurting them,” Jenkins said.
According to Amy Dabbs, the tri-county’s consumer horticulture agent for Clemson University’s local Cooperative Extension, any residents concerned about their properties’ dogwoods can contact the extension office for a specific diagnosis. Photos may also be submitted.
“If we are not able to diagnose it we can send a sample to the Clemson University Diagnostic Plant Problem Clinic,” Dabbs said. Samples cost $10 each to process.