Researchers working to protect palm trees from disease known as ‘butt rot’

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Matthew Seaver
Published: Updated:
Palm trees
Palm trees. (Credit: WINK News)

Palm trees are near as synonymous with Florida as sunshine, and just like people, they can get sick.

‘Butt rot’ at the base of a palm tree. (Credit: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences)

This is what’s known as butt rot. The mushroom-like conks at the base of a palm tree are the distinguishing symptom and indicate your palm tree can’t be saved.

One University of Florida researcher is getting into the science and uncovering issues before it’s too late.

Palm trees are beautiful, and they line our streets. Fort Myers is even known as the city of palms, but more than 65 palm tree species in Florida are vulnerable to a wood-decaying fungus that can kill them.

The fungus known as ganoderma zonatum causes the lethal disease ganoderma. also known as ‘butt rot.’

Braham Dhillon, an assistant professor in plant pathology at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences, said most of the calls he gets from homeowners and landscapers are about the disease.

Visual symptoms start with withering palm fronds. Eventually, a fruiting body or conk shows up on the trunk, and at that point, it’s too late to save the tree.

“It’s a silent killer. It shows up. It takes its time, sweet time. It’s a slow-moving pathogen. But it does eventually kill the palm that, in effect, so there’s no control right now,” said Dhillon.

Early detection was virtually impossible until now. Dhillon and his team found a way to use unique genetic markers exclusive to Ganoderma zonatum to develop a test that detects the disease.

“We don’t have to wait for the conk to appear that usually appears later in the disease cycle,” said Dhillon.

A tree specialist can collect wood shaving samples from the trunk and submit them to a lab for diagnosis with the new procedure. The shortened time between infection and detection using the DNA-based diagnostic method allows more time for treatment.

“By the time the conk appears, the trees already starting to rot inside.” Dhillon said, “The palm can actually fall over.”

You’ll have to remove the tree and surrounding soil at that point.

To submit your own tree samples, visit this link.

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