Beech decline in Central Europe driven by the interaction between Phytophthora infections and climatic extremes.
During the past decade, and in particular after the wet year 2002 and the dry year 2003, an increasing number of trees and stands of European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) in Bavaria were showing symptoms typical for Phytophthora diseases: increased transparency and crown dieback, small-sized and often yellowish foliage, root and collar rot and aerial bleeding cankers up to stem heights of >20 m. Between 2003 and 2007 134 mature beech stands on a broad range of geological substrates were surveyed, and collar rot and aerial bleeding cankers were found in 116 (86.6%) stands. In most stands the majority of beech trees were declining and scattered or clustered mortality occurred. Bark and soil samples were taken from 314 trees in 112 stands, and 11 Phytophthora species were recovered from 253 trees (80.6%) in 104 stands (92.9%). The most frequent species were P. citricola, P. cambivora and P. cactorum. Primary Phytophthora lesions were soon infected by a series of secondary bark pathogens, including Nectria coccinea, and wood decay fungi. In addition, infected trees were often attacked by several bark and wood boring insects leading to rapid mortality. Bark necroses were examined for their probable age in order to determine whether the onset of the current Phytophthora epidemic was correlated to rainfall rates recorded at 22 Bavarian forest ecosystem monitoring stations. A small-scale survey in nine Bavarian nurseries demonstrated regular infestations of all beech fields with the same range of Phytophthora species. The results indicate that (1) Phytophthora species are regularly associated with beech decline and may also be involved in the complex of 'Beech Bark Disease', (2) excessive rainfalls and droughts are triggering the disease, and (3) widespread Phytophthora infestations of nursery stock might endanger current and future silvicultural projects aiming on the replacement of non-natural conifer stands by beech dominated mixed stands.