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New disease threatening historic trees across Massachusetts

BROOKLINE, Mass. — A grove of majestic beech trees graces a neighborhood in Brookline, much like it has for almost 200 years.

These trees are facing a new threat, however. It’s called Beech Leaf Disease (BLD) and it can be fatal.

The Longwood Mall in Brookline is considered the oldest collection of European beech trees in the United States.

“The beech trees are really special,” said Alexandra Vecchio, the Town’s Director of Parks and Open Spaces. “When we think about trees of this size, we’re thinking about all the environmental benefits they provide. . . and that improves both physical and mental health as well.”

Beech leaf disease was first detected in Brookline in the spring of 2021. It was a chilling discovery for Thomas Brady, the town’s tree warden. “Beech leaf disease is fairly aggressive. It’s new to the area,” explained Brady. “And the most concerning aspect is the fact we don’t have an effective treatment.”

BLD spreads so quickly and is so detrimental to the trees that it has already claimed the life of a historic beech tree at the site of the former St. Aidan’s Church where both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy were baptized.

“In Massachusetts, we have currently found it in every county,” said Nicole Keleher, the state’s forest health director.

She says BLD was first detected in Massachusetts in Plymouth in 2020.

“It’s a new disease and its very different from a lot of our other forest health issues,” explained Keleher. “It’s actually caused by a nematode, which are these little, microscopic round worms that are present in the bugs and leaves of the tree.”

Keleher shared one theory on how the disease is spreading: “The patterns that we’re seeing, it does seem really likely that it’s being spread by birds. Beech trees are a really important wildlife habitat, and they are used by a number of bird species.”

Anyone in the outdoors is asked to look at beech leaves to see if they detect any infestation. Nicole Keleler can be reached at www.Nicole.Keleher@mass.gov to report any evidence of the disease.

For now, Brady says the only defense is a good offense. “The best recommendation that they have right now is to augment the trees’ natural ability to fight infections and pathogens, and so we’re doing things like phosphite treatments, deep-root watering, and soil aeration.”

So far, the town has detected BLD at St. Aidan’s Church, Larz Anderson Park, and on Longwood Mall.

The current drought is making matters worse because it generally weakens the trees.

Vecchio says a large scale loss of these trees would be devastating for the town. “I think it would be really painful for the Brookline community. It’s really just this integral part of the community, both the physical place and I also think in an emotional way as well.”

Because if a place like Longwood Mall is lost, it can never be replaced.

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