How To Save A Dying Apple Tree: Causes, Symptoms, And Solutions

Giving you loads of fresh apples in the fall and a scenic sight and shelter throughout the rest of the year, your apple tree has stood by you for a long time. Now that it’s not looking its best, will you stand back and watch it suffer? No. Take action before you lose your humble friend for good. Continue reading, and you’ll learn how to save a dying apple tree before it’s too late. 

How Long Can An Apple Tree Live?

Standard-sized apple trees can live for over 50 to 150 years if tended well, while dwarf- and semi-dwarf varieties have a shorter life span of about 15 to 25 years. Soil conditions, climate, and maintenance can affect the productive lifespan of a tree. Bacterial and fungal diseases, pest infestations, water stress, and drastic climatic changes can be detrimental to their health. If the problem persists, it can even kill the apple tree if prompt action isn’t taken. 

Regular Care For A Prolonged Healthy Life

Other than treating the specific problems, which we will list later in the same post, regular care and maintenance can ensure your tree’s healthy and long productive life. It’s best to maintain a healthy tree and avoid any problems in the first place. Prevention is always easier and more effective than treatment.  

Here are some services that your apple tree asks for in return for a bountiful harvest year after year:

  1. Regular irrigation, especially for young trees, dwarf, and semi-dwarf varieties.
  2. Protect it from wildlife predation. Remove mulch from around the bark in the fall since mice tend to hide under it and eat the bark.
  3. Treat diseases and pest infestations promptly before they progress.
  4. Remove dead and diseased branches, but avoid heavy pruning on a young tree.
  5. Prune a mature apple yearly to maintain it’s size. Make sure you get rid of all the dead and diseased wood. Regular pruning lowers the chances of diseases.
  6. Avoid injuring the tree during gardening chores. Wounds on the tree can leave it prone to infections.
  7. Make sure the roots are well covered. Dump more soil over it if any roots peek out of the ground. Exposed roots can cause root rot, which can be fatal. 

Besides the routine care, it might also help to learn how to save a dying apple tree. Whether it’s a pest attack, disease, or disorder that’s killing your apple tree, we can help you revive it.

What Kills Apple Trees: Common Problems And Solutions

If your apple tree looks like it’s nearing its end, there could be many possible problems that are affecting it, depending on the cultivar and its growing conditions. Identifying the cause is the first step to handling the problem.  

So what kills apple trees? Here’s a list of some common life-threatening problems that an apple tree can experience, in addition to some practical solutions:

Phytophthora Rots (Collar Rot, Crown Rot, and Root Rot)

One of the most common causes of root rot in apple trees is phytophthora. It’s a fungal disease that affects the roots and the base of the trunk. Collar rot, crown rot, and root rot are all different names for the same diseases, but each highlights the specific location of the problem. Root rot refers to the infection at the roots, while crown rot means the condition at the roots and the trunk base. Collar rot occurs in the case of severe infections and is visible above the tree union.

Symptoms

Often, you won’t notice the symptoms until the disease has advanced into the tree. Apple Tree Leaves Yellowing, wilting, and falling of leaves and dying branches can result as the problem progresses. However, since similar symptoms can be linked to a range of different problems, it’s hard to tell if the tree is infected by a phytophthora disease. 

how to save a dying apple tree

If you examine below the ground, you’ll notice a weakened root system, with several rotted feeder roots. Some of the larger roots may also show signs of decay. To test if it’s really phytophthora affecting the tree, slice off a strip of the bark with a sharp knife. A healthy tree will have a green color inside, while that infected by phytophthora will be orange or brown. 

Prevention

Phytophthora is often caused by contamination from soil, water, or the plant itself. To prevent the disease, purchase resistant varieties from reliable sources. Golden Delicious, Rome Beauty, Lodi, and Winesap are some of the resistant varieties. Additionally, plant in raised beds or improve drainage of the existing soil.

Treatment

Now you know what’s wrong, but how to save a dying apple tree? Once the infection appears, it isn’t easy to control. However, it will help to remove soil around the tree base and expose the affected area. Leaving it exposed in the air for some days will dry it and, hopefully, prevent spread. Spray it with copper fungicide and replace it with fresh soil once the trunk is dry, around autumn. Limit watering to suppress fungal diseases. 

Black Rot (Frogeye Leaf Spot)

Besides phytophthora, what kills apple trees? Black rot is another deadly disease that affects apple trees, particularly the cultivars Empire and Cortland. It’s another fungal disease caused by Botryosphaeria obtuse and affects the fruit, leaves, trunk, and branches of an apple tree.

Frogeye leaf spot is the same disease, caused by the same fungus, but refers to a different stage of the disease cycle. When the infection is on the leaves, it’s called Frogeye leaf spot; once it progresses to the fruit, it’s called black rot. If the disease spreads to the tree limbs, it can kill the tree in rare cases.

Symptoms

In its initial stages, you’ll find purple spots on the leaves. As it progresses, the marks will enlarge with brown concentric circles and a purple margin, similar to a frog’s eye, hence the name. Rotten spots also develop on the fruit, primarily near the blossom end. Often the fruit will dry out on the branches. Canker can appear on the infected branches, visible as a sunken brown area. 

Prevention

Trees infected by fire blight are more susceptible to black rot. Remove all branches that are infected by fire blight to prevent chances of black rot. Prune during the dormant season to minimize the possibility of fire blight. If you have to prune during the growing season or if strong winds damage branches or bark, treat the wounds with copper-based fungicides to prevent black rot and fire blight. 

Treatment

How to save a dying apple tree that’s infected by black rot? The best treatment for black rot is good sanitation. Remove all the infected fruit from the branches and prune out the diseased and dead branches. Remove all the pruned out material from the ground and discard it (do not compost it). Watch out for recurring signs, and prune the area as soon as it appears. Captan and sulfur sprays, labeled for black rot can also be effective in the early stages of the disease. 

Fire Blight

how to save a dying apple tree

Fire blight is a lethal disease that’s common in many parts of the US. What kills apple trees through fire blight is a bacterium called Erwinia amylovora; it is highly contagious. The bacterium overwinters in infected wood and will spread to blossoms and twigs in the spring through the wind, rain, birds, and water splashes from irrigation. 

Symptoms

Blossoms will appear browned and scorched. It will also spread to the branches, curling and killing twigs and wilting the leaves. Cankers will form on the branches, with thick orange-brown liquid – these are sites where bacteria will overwinter. Overall, the tree will appear as if it was scorched by fire. 

Prevention

Once it occurs, fire blight is difficult to manage. It’s best to prevent the infection by planting resistant varieties, like Liberty, William Pride, Stark Bounty, and Jonafree. Avoid susceptible varieties like Jonathan, Rome Beauty, and Burgandy. USDA has provided a complete list of apple cultivars with different fire blight susceptibility levels here. Avoid using excessive fertilizers, and do not fertilize at all during the dormant season. 

Treatment

So, how to save a dying apple tree that’s infected with fire blight? Prune the dead and infected branches during the dormant season, in late winters. Avoid pruning during the growing season since it can spread fire blight. Burn the branches with bacterial ooze to prevent overwintering. Remove and destroy all the pruned out material. Spray copped fungicide before blooming if fire blight has been severe during the previous year, according to Clemson Cooperative Extension. 

Woolly Aphids

how to save a dying apple tree

Woolly aphids are a type of aphids, a sap-sucking insect that attacks apple trees. The pest attacks the stems and the bark and can spread to the roots if left untreated. What kills apple trees – is it the tiny insects? Though tiny, they can be a serious threat to your apple tree, weakening it and make it prone to further pest attacks and diseases. 

Symptoms

Woolly aphids are easily identified. Firstly, they’ll only attack the bark and stems, so the leaves will be unaffected. Secondly, you’ll find a white, fluffy coating on the affected areas. If you scrape it off, you’ll find tiny brown bugs sucking on the sap. The infestation begins in a small area and spreads to further parts of the tree. In later stages, cankers may also develop on the limbs and roots. 

Prevention

Purchase apple tree varieties that are resistant to woolly aphids. Trees grafted on rootstock MM106 are generally the most resistant to these pests. Prune during the dormant period and avoid any damage to the bark. Exposed wounds are ideal sites for hosting woolly aphids. 

Treatment

Applying insecticidal soap or neem oil on the affected areas can help reverse the problem. Chemical pesticides for woolly aphids, such as acephate, are also useful in getting rid of the pests but should only be used if the tree is heavily infested. You can also prune out and destroy the infected branches. Keep a close eye on the tree for the rest of the year, and repeat the treatment if you see any more white, fluffy areas. 

Necteria Canker

Necteria canker is a fungal infection on apple trees. What kills apple trees with this disease is a fungus called Nectria galligena. The pathogen attacks the fresh wounds on the bark and branches. It causes sunken areas of dead wood; eventually, the infected branch dies back.

Injuries, pest infestations, diseases, bad pruning techniques, and root damage can leave the tree prone to cankers. Healthy trees will typically fight off the infection and recover on their own. However, old, unhealthy trees, young trees, and newly transplanted ones are at high risks of damage from the infection and can even die in many cases.   

Symptoms

Dead, sunken, discolored areas on the trunk, branches, or twigs are synonymous with necteria canker. In the later stages, you’ll find girdled twigs and branches. The branches above the infected areas will weaken and, eventually, die. You’ll see wilting of leaves and rotting of fruits.  

Prevention

Prune trees in the dormant season only, and avoid pruning in wet conditions. For the newly transplanted trees, protection against frost damage can protect them from cankers. Manage pest infestations as soon as they appear and protect the tree against all other injuries, primarily when operating a lawnmower near the tree.

Treatment

It’s challenging to manage cankers once it appears; however, there are some things that you can try. So, how to save a dying apple tree infected with necteria cankers? If the infection is on smaller branches and twigs, prune them out. For the thicker branches, cut off the infected area, if feasible. After obliterating the infected area, paint immediately with wound paint, like Medo. 

Conclusion

Never ignore your apple tree’s health. If you find any signs that could indicate a disease or a problem, manage them right away. You’ve already learned how to save a dying apple tree in different situations. If infections are ignored, they progress and become fatal. They can destroy your harvest, or worse – kill the tree! Take suitable action before it’s too late. 

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