Florida’s Latest Environmental Nightmare: Its Majestic Palm Trees Are Being Destroyed

The state tree of Florida, it will come as no surprise to anyone, is the iconic, broad leafed sabal palm tree. When you see one, you cannot help but think of the Sunshine State.

But now the palms are being attacked by a lethal bronzing disease that dries them out until they die in mere months. Once they contract the disease, there is no way to treat them.

According to the Associated Press, the disease is spreading quickly, endangering an $84 million a year industry that Florida depends on:

“Spread by a rice-sized, plant-hopping insect, lethal bronzing has gone from a small infestation on Florida’s Gulf Coast to a nearly statewide problem in just over a decade. Tens of thousands of palm trees have died from the bacterial disease, and the pace of its spread is increasing, adding to environmental woes of a state already struggling to save its other arboreal icon, citrus trees, from two other diseases.”

Worst of all is the helplessness many are feeling. Once the disease begins in a palm, the only solution is to uproot the infected plant, and that threatens the entire state’s landscape and image, according to Brian Bahder, an entomologist who studies insect-borne plant diseases:

“Getting this disease under control is essential because it has the potential to drastically modify our landscape.

“If nothing is done, I don’t think all the palm trees will die, but the issue we see will get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Lethal bronzing, according to experts, probably originated in Mexico, and can be found in portions of Texas and the Caribbean. The fear is that it may move further westward, endangering date palm trees in Arizona and California. It has already taken a devastating toll on coconut plantations across Jamaica, and Brazil is said to be taking measures that will prevent it from reaching its shores.

The disease isn’t new to Florida, having arrived in Tampa as early as 2006, but it was isolated in a small area for years. Now it can be found from the Keys in the south to Jacksonville in the north.

And it’s the ravenous appetite of a tiny insect that is causing lethal bronzing  to spread so quickly:

“The disease is transmitted solely by the haplaxius crudus, a tiny winged insect sometimes called the American palm cixiid or, generically, a treehopper. These specific treehoppers (there are other kinds) inject the bacteria through their saliva when feasting on the sap from a palm’s leaves. Any palm cixiid that later feeds from the tree will pick up the infection and pass the bacteria to more palms.”

Why are the insects suddenly more prevalent in Florida and other areas? Climate change plays a role, according to Bahder:

“With increased human movement around the region and, especially, stronger weather patterns in regards to climate change, there are more possible routes for invasive insects.”

The only solution so far to combat the lethal bronzing is a temporary method of inoculating the palms:

“After infected trees are removed, nearby palms need preventive antibiotic injections to halt the spread. Each injection costs $50 and loses effectiveness after three months: that makes injections before the disease is present too costly for most homeowners, businesses and municipal governments, Bahder said. Only high-end resorts that use mature palms to enhance ambience might consider injecting trees without a nearby infection, he said.”

Tragically, one day a visit to the beach may be less memorable and filled with far fewer of those palm trees we all associate with a great vacation.


Featured Image Via Flickr



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Andrew Bradford

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