Neal Reilly sees them in parking lots, along the sides of roads and anywhere their roots have been unable to spread: diseased white pine trees.
“We’re really starting to see a lot of them die off,” said Reilly, president of Reilly Tree and Landscaping in Plainville. “It’s sad.”
It’s also potentially dangerous and expensive for home and business owners. White pine is among the softest of woods, and weakened trees can easily topple onto homes, cars and even people.
As a result, local tree services have been busy this spring getting rid of white pines and offering advice.
“They’re really fragile to begin with,” Reilly said. “People should take precautions if the tree appears diseased at all.”
Why this is happening isn’t entirely known, but according to a report from the University of Massachusetts Agricultural Extension, it is likely the result of weather extremes in recent years.
UMass said the white pine decline seems to be especially severe in southeastern New Hampshire, eastern Massachusetts and eastern Connecticut. Those areas have been hard hit by drought since 2010 and especially over the past two summers.
That has made the pines vulnerable to a fungus which turns the needles brown and eventually destroys the tree.
Ironically, heavy rains the region has experienced this spring may be accelerating the decline by helping the fungus to flourish more than the withering trees.
According to the UMass report, the fungus has not wiped out entire forests. In fact, healthy trees can often be found near diseased ones, but only if their roots have been able to spread sufficiently to gather water.
“It’s in the parking lots where you really see them dying off,” Reilly said. “There’s only so much footage to put down their root structure.”
Another trend that has hurt the white pine population, UMass says, has been the trend toward longer, warmer fall weather, such as in 2015 when the mercury topped 70 on Christmas Eve. Pines are weakened when they are unable to gradually prepare for the sudden cold when winter finally does arrive.
In addition, red pines are also being threatened, according to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Forest Health, but by a different enemy: insects.
First, red pines were attacked by microscopic, flightless insects called scales, wiping out large areas. The most notable was the Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth, where 10,000 trees had to be removed.
While arborists look for signs of more scales, another threat looms.
The first Southern pine beetles have been found in Massachusetts, just a few years after they decimated the New Jersey Pine Barrens and those on Long Island. Since 2001, the beetles have attacked 32,800 acres in New Jersey alone.
The state agency has found the beetles in traps, especially in Plymouth and in lesser numbers on Cape Cod. The numbers have been far less than what was seen in New Jersey, however, and state officials are hopeful red pines will escape further devastation.
Meanwhile, local tree companies recommend having an arborist inspect white pines suspected of being diseased. Some can be saved, often by adding and maintaining mulch around the base of the trees and keeping them watered.
Arborists also recommend replacing a diseased white pine with a new one — if the conditions are right. White pines need not only a large base but can also grow up to 80 feet tall, too large for some yards.
“They’re really nice trees,” Reilly said, “but they need to be planted right.”