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Leaves change in a more muted tone on Hogback Mountain, in Marlboro, Vt., on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, as a wet summer could have an effect on their normal vibrant colors.

Missing those brilliant golds and flaming reds?

First, the good news: the premature leaf drop that has afflicted many trees in recent weeks, including the state’s iconic sugar maple, is only temporary, brought on by this summer’s wet weather, according to the state’s forestry experts.

Anthracnose, a fungal disease, is the likely culprit of the leaf drop, which is causing the trees to lose their brown and dried-out leaves before they turn the glorious colors of autumn.

The fungus isn’t likely to cause permanent damage, said Michael Snyder, commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

Snyder said this week that the problem seemed to be concentrated in the southern counties, which had much heavier rainfall this summer compared to the rest of the state.

He said the anthracnose was not evidenced in northern and central Vermont, which is still in drought conditions and enjoying the peak stages of foliage.

‘It’s a fungus’

“It’s a fungus. Its spores spread in the damp conditions,” Snyder said. Trees that are flooded are weakened, he said. “They need oxygen in those roots,” he said, noting that usually trees want more water, and then some more.

Southern Vermont, starting in late June and continuing all July, was inundated with above-average rainfall, leading to flooding and wet fields, while the northern half remained drier than normal. “It’s been mixed all across the state,” he said, noting that parts of Addison County, along Lake Champlain, had a gypsy moth outbreak, which defoliated many trees.

“There are so many factors,” he said, mentioning leaf cutter insects and maple tar spot disease, which is caused by another fungus.

According to the U.S. Weather Service in Albany, N.Y., which covers both Windham and Bennington counties, this past July had triple and near quadruple the normal rainfall of 4 inches during the hot summer month.

The ground was saturated when a freak storm hit parts of Bennington and Windham counties hard at the end of the month, dropping 5 inches of rain on top of the saturated ground and creating lots of road damage.

Snyder said there is really nothing to be done for the trees in the forest losing their leaves early. And he said for specimen or lawn trees, homeowners should clean up the affected leaves and either compost or burn them, to lessen the residual fungal disease.

“Trees are strong,” he said. “They are built for loss.”

Snyder said peak color has arrived in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, as well as the higher elevations of central Vermont.

In Bennington County, groundwork was set

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In Bennington County, county forester Cory Creagan said a dry spring turned into a wet early summer, laying the groundwork for the anthracnose to thrive.

Creagan on Friday said he received many calls in the summer from concerned forest owners about the drying and falling of leaves, way ahead of foliage.

“I got a lot of calls from landowners,” he said, adding that pear thrips, another forest pest, also caused damage in Bennington County. He said he saw “quite a bit” of damage from thrips, and isolated cases of anthracnose.

“It’s spotty,” he said. “I think if we didn’t have such a wet late spring-early summer,” the counties wouldn’t be seeing the effects now.

The one good thing, he said, is while it’s upsetting to see trees lose their leaves ahead of schedule, anthracnose is not fatal.

“It is stressful for the tree, but unless that tree is already damaged, it should recover just fine,” he said.

Monsoon-like rains

Sam Schneski, Windham County forester, said the problem seemed to be present in both Windham and Bennington counties. Both counties coincidentally suffered the most damage during monsoon-like rains in July.

Schneski laid the blame for the premature leaf drop on climate change, which he said had contributed to the heavier than usual rainfall, which in turn fostered the fungal disease.

“We had a super wet end of June, and I attribute it to climate change,” he said. Last year, it was almost a drought, he said.

“Trees are such great survivors,” said Schneski, who said despite the leaf drop in a lot of trees, there are plenty of green leaves to lead to foliage. “Their feet have been wet all summer, I think that’s what’s going on.”

“The climate is changing so rapidly,” he said. “I see it every day. There’s a change in the moisture regime.”

He said for the last five to 10 years, trees have been under a lot of environmental stress. And the seasons are shifting. “I’m a sugarmaker and you always said ‘Tap on Town Meeting.’ Well, if you waited until Town Meeting, you missed the season.”

The fungus problem is not new or unusual. A 2007 Associated Press article about the foliage season also mentioned the impact of anthracnose on the past foliage season, saying the fungal disease had turned many leaves “brown and crumbly” ahead of schedule.

As for an impact on the foliage season, is it just beginning in Southern Vermont?

“I’ll tell you when foliage season is over. We’ll still have very nice foliage,” said Schneski.

“There’s a lot of green yet,” said Snyder.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.


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