A California killer that has invaded 13 Georgia nurseries, including two in the Augusta area, is prompting state and local officials to take action and ask for the public's help.
The nemesis, known as sudden oak death, doesn't harm humans but is a threat to some of their favorite trees and plants - including various oaks and camellias. Officials fear what might happen if the deadly fungal disease were to take hold in the Augusta area.
"The very worst-case scenario?" said Charles Phillips, Columbia County's Cooperative Extension Service agent. "I guess you could look at a loss of all the oak trees in the area."
Jenny Addie, of Green Thumb West Nursery & Garden Center in Augusta, which had one camellia recently show signs of the deadly disease, said the problem has been taken care of at her nursery. She said she is not taking shipments of camellias from California, but that means she has fewer camellias to offer.
"There is a shortage of camellias in the industry now," said Ms. Addie, who added that customers shouldn't worry about purchasing plants at her nursery.
She said the peak time to plant camellias is in the fall, so the shortage hasn't caused a problem yet because demand for camellias isn't high right now.
"But it will be (a problem) long term," she said, noting that more healthy camellias will have to be planted in California to replace those being quarantined.
The funguslike pathogen, which has no cure, was first reported in 1995 in central coastal California and killed thousands of tan oaks, coast live oaks and California black oaks.
Sudden oak death also can kill plants such as rhododendrons, camellias and viburnums, but officials say that so far in the Augusta area, it has showed up only in camellias.
Mr. Phillips said the problem isn't at a crisis level in the Augusta area, but he said his department is concerned because some plants that came from California and might have carried the disease have been sold locally since January - before plants that could transmit sudden oak death were quarantined.
"If anybody's got any plants that they are looking at as a possibility, call us," he said.
Just last week, Mr. Phillips said, he sent off samples of four camellias from two Columbia County homes to be tested for the disease. He said the four samples showed possible signs of the disease.
"We hope there's not any plants out in the environment that have sudden oak death, but there's always that possibility," he said.
The tests, to be conducted at an extension service office in Athens, will take at least 10 days, he said. Signs of the disease include blotches on a leaf that look like sunburn. Lesions might be brown and have a bull's-eye with dark brown edges and light centers, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture's Web site.
Discoveries of sudden oak death in Georgia, including eight more within the past week, have prompted the department to halt shipments of some plants to Georgia from California and to urge that residents not dig up or mulch plants they suspect might have the disease to prevent further spread. Plant shipments that have been halted include shipments of camellia, rhododendron, azalea, viburnum, tan oak, coast redwood oak and strawberry tree.
Mr. Phillips said residents can clip a leaf that shows signs of the disease and bring it into his office, but the leaf must be placed in a sealed plastic bag because the disease can be spread through the soil and the air.
Associated Press reports were used in this article.
Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SUDDEN OAK DEATH INFORMATION
What to look for:
What to do if you suspect sudden oak death:
Augusta-Richmond County: 821-2349
Columbia County: 868-3413
Aiken County: (803) 649-6297
A free class that will provide details about sudden oak death will be offered by the University of Georgias Extension Service at 9 a.m. Thursday at Savannah Rapids Pavilion in Columbia County. The public is welcome.