The old maple is dying.
At first it was slowly fading, but last summer it started to take off quickly, the lichen covered limbs cracking and falling to the ground, the gray bark covered with dark green moss. It has much fewer leaves. A crack runs through the middle. More plants grow in the crevices of the tree: purple bramble sticks, sedge grasses, and red-tinged euonymus. For the first time I see three woodpecker holes, so beautifully aligned that they look like Orion’s belt.
I don’t know why the tree is dying, so I do some research. Maples are susceptible to many diseases, such as anthracnose, verticillium wilt, and powdery mildew, but I’m still confused, so I call Brian Crooks, a forester with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. The telltale signs, he says, are small honey-colored fungi at the base of the tree that indicate the maple has a fungus: Armillaria root rot.
The Armillaria fungus affects many hardwoods and conifers, especially maples, oaks and elms. Black, fibrous rhizomes grow through the soil into the roots and trunk of the tree and attack the wood. If I remove the bark, I may see bright white mycelial fans. But none of this is visible yet. I learn that it is an Armillaria fungus the largest known organism in the world, a larger than 200-ton blue whale. The Armillaria area was discovered in Oregon in 1998, covering 2,384 acres.
I don’t know how big ours is, but I’m concerned that it would encroach on a nearby tree, a large red oak that my husband loves.
I wonder if the maple does not like our new weather in western Pennsylvania: extreme heat, drought, then micro bursts of rain and wind and flash floods. When our floods come now, the water comes down the hill so fast that the maple tree sits in the middle of the pond with a stream running through it. I know from maple sugaring with my friend and his 89-year-old uncle that changing climate conditions make sugaring difficult. For the sap to flow in February or March, there must be warm days and cool nights. Timing is now less predictable. But I’m not a scientist, so I ask Crooks.