July 24, 2008

Florida's State Tree Struck by Funding Gods' Wrath

An unknown disease is killing sabal palms, Florida's state tree. The organism responsible for spreading the disease is likely an insect, but due to the loss of funding to universities and other research centers the money is not available to tackle the problem.

Sabal palms are a major component of the ecosystem in many parts of Florida. The loss of a significant proportion of the trees is likely to have major repercussions to natural areas. It's a pretty grim picture.

Disease killing Florida's state tree

The sabal palm, Florida's state tree, is under attack by a microscopic killer that has scientists stumped.

An unknown but growing number of sabal palms in the Tampa Bay area have died from a mysterious disease that researchers are struggling to identify. Even after scientists pinpoint the disease - and that could take years - they will have to learn what insect spreads it. The disease will be tough to stop.

"It's not simply a matter that we will be able to eradicate," said Monica Elliott, a University of Florida plant pathologist. "That's not very likely..."

"Every single location came back positive and that knocked our socks off," Dessaint said. "Most of what's known is very limited, and that's a big problem right now. There's nothing anyone can do. We have seen this disease on very, very young palms all the way to mature, old palms, along roadways and pastures. it's pretty much everywhere when you start looking for it."

The disease is likely carried by an insect, but scientists don't know which one. There's no way to tell exactly how widespread it is until an aerial survey is done, but that seems unlikely any time soon as university and public dollars are dwindling around the state...

The new disease destroys the sabal palm and its other victims, which include Canary Island date palms and queen palms, from within...

The disease is hitting the state during a tight budget year, and University of Florida research funding has taken a hit. Officials can still turn to federal and private grants, and a proposal to dip into a small emergency fund is being considered, said Jack Battenfield, a spokesman for UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences...
With funding for field research on this problem being tight, it's likely that researchers will need public input to figure out the location and spread of the disease, a necessary first step in coming up with a solution. If you see a palm tree exhibiting symptoms of the disease, you should contact the UF Department of Plant Pathology.

Afflicted trees first lose their lower leaves, which turn a color described as "bright brown." This condition spreads to the spear leaf at the center of the trunk. Then intermediate fronds die, and soon after that the tree is a goner.

The emergence of this disease is a good example of why research funding is important to maintain, even in times when budgets get tight. The loss of funding means an indeterminate delay in addressing the problem as researchers scramble to find the money needed to pay for required resources. The longer it takes, the worse the impact of the disease and the farther it may spread before some way of halting it is discovered.

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