Fatal disease spreading across New Orleans palms

Fatal disease spreading across New Orleans palms
Experts recommend removing plants that contract the disease. (FOX 8 Photo)
Experts recommend removing plants that contract the disease. (FOX 8 Photo)

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A fatal disease is spreading across palm trees in Mid-City.

Texas Phoenix Palm Decline was first discovered in Louisiana in 2013 by LSU researcher Dr. Raghuwinder "Raj" Singh, who works at LSU's Department of Plant Pathology and Crop Physiology. The disease is believed to be spread by insects, and once a tree is infected, it seems it's almost always fatal.

"The lower third of the canopy starts to brown up. It doesn't go from a yellow to brown, you will notice when it becomes brown and then it droops, you get an umbrella picture of the palm," Singh said.

The top portion of the tree, including the part known as the spear palm, may stay green for some time, but eventually, once the disease is contracted, the tree will lose its palms and fruit and die.

"We've lost probably 30 to 35 palm trees, some of them decades old, and like you said, it's distressing, but we're doing what we can," City Park spokesman John Hopper said.

City Park has hundreds of palms, including a series of Medjool Date Palms that line the Great Lawn. Arborists at the park are already treating some of the trees with a special antibiotic that may prevent the disease from being contracted, but at an estimated $800 a year per tree, the antibiotic is not always a practical solution.

"Right now we are taking the advice of the arborist and treating the trees that we can, and when we see a dead tree like we just saw, getting going on having it removed," Hopper said.

The most iconic trees in the city line Canal Street downtown. The city spent millions planting hundreds of Medjool Date Palms, all of which appear to be in good health, but the Downtown Development District isn't taking any chances.

"Naturally there's a great investment in the palms downtown," said Richard McCall, director of operations for the Downtown Development District. "We're always being proactive to limit our exposure. We feel like we have a great contractor, they report to us monthly, they're downtown every week, and so they're monitoring to see if there are any problems that do arise so we can take corrective steps to make sure we don't have greater exposure."

Right now, there doesn't seem to be a cure. It's why experts recommend removing plants that contract the disease.

"If you keep them, the bacterium is going to stay in that palm, and then if you plant another palm nearby, those insects, like leaf hoppers or plant hoppers, they can feed on an infected palm and transmit the bacterium to healthy palms," Dr. Singh said.

Singh secured a $100,000 grant to continue studying the disease and map the reach of the effects.

So far, he believes the disease affects only a half-dozen species of palms in Louisiana, including: Canary Island date palms, silver date palms, wild date palms, edible date palms, Sabal palms and queen palms.

His team is testing trees that may appear infected. If you have a tree that fits the symptoms you can submit a sample by calling 225-578-4562.

For more information on the Texas Phoenix Palm Decline click here.

Copyright 2015 WVUE. All rights reserved.