Westmount's infected trees

The west end's diseased trees are casting a shadow on the neighbourhood.

Sick leaves Local residents say they want more info about the Westmount tar-spot leaf problem.

Westmount looks like the perfect place to live. Kids frolic in the field behind St. Agnes School and neighbours greet each other by name. The neighbourhood has a unique design---front yards are the size of backyards---so people see more of each other.

There's just one problem and it's keeping Lois Beaton up at night: "They're all dried up," she says of the black-spotted leaves that litter her street. "I hear them rustling in the night. They sound like bones."

The Norwegian maple trees planted in Westmount are infected with a fungus. In district 14, the west end, infected trees are outside each house, shedding shrivelled up brown leaves. Pinhead-sized black spots appear in late May and spread to about one-and-a-half inches by late June. In July, they cause leaves to dry up and fall and by August or September, many of the maple branches are bare.

Some think the trees are dying, others say it's year three of a seven-year cycle.

Temporary supervisor of urban forestry for HRM, Constantinos Liolis, says the fungus is called tar spot, that the disease looks ugly and causes leaves to fall prematurely, though it won't kill the trees.

But for some residents, who have watched the problem worsen over the past three years, this information is nothing new. They want the city to help them find a solution.

John Swales watches the leaves fall earlier and become more spotted each summer. He first contacted John Simmons, supervisor for the HRM urban forestry department, in 2006. According to Swales's wife Valeria, who was home when Simmons came to the neighbourhood, the urban forester denied having heard of tar spots and said the trees weren't sick. Simmons was out of town and couldn't be reached for comment but Liolis, who is filling in his position, says he's noticed the problem in the last year.

Swales did some research of his own and found out tar spot is caused by the fungus Rhytisma. It's hard to get rid of because if infected leaves are left on the ground the fungus survives through the winter and is carried by the wind in the spring, spreading to other trees. He circulated this information to his neighbours, encouraging people to bag their leaves as soon as they fell.

This year, the leaves fell even earlier: August instead of September. Councillor Sheila Fougere lives a few blocks from Westmount and noticed the problem get worse, spreading to Point Pleasant Park and the north end of Halifax. She's asked HRM to issue public service announcements about tar spot for the past two years and has also asked public works staff about plans for a more intensive leaf clean-up, but she has yet to hear back.

Liolis says the city is doing its part to inform residents about the fungus. He says last year the urban forestry department was about to issue a press release when TheChronicle Herald wrote an article about a tar-spot outbreak in Bridgewater. Liolis answered questions from concerned callers and referred them to the article for more information. He says the way to get rid of the tar is to bag all leaves, since one leaf left on the ground could contaminate an entire tree.

Liolis adds that though there is no formal plan to tackle the problem, HRM does a fall clean-up of the city each year, where staff collect as many leaves as possible on public property before the snow falls and take them to a compost facility. He says residents should rake those that fall on private property and bag or compost them because the disease won't spread to other trees unless it's picked up by the wind.

"There's no cause for panic," he says, adding the spreading of tar spots depends on the weather---a cool and damp spring are the optimal conditions. "If everyone does their bit the problem should be kept at bay."

Westmount resident Danny Almond, who's lived there for more than 30 years, still wants more information. "We're told to clean up leaves for the city to collect, but we don't know how they're being dealt with or what happens to them in the compost."

Another long-time Westmount resident, Perry Wournell, says knowing the trees will survive isn't enough.

"Even if they don't die, what's a tree without its leaves?" he asks. "We want to know whether there's a contingency plan in place. We don't want to just sit on our hands watching the leaves fall."

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