Dutch Elm Disease

Need to know: 

  • The leaves of trees wilt, turn yellow or brown, and then fall because the Dutch elm disease invades the water-conducting vessels. 
  • The disease is spread through elm bark beetles and grafted root systems. 
  • Dead and dying elms should be removed and properly disposed of by prompt debarking, chipping, burning, or burying elm wood. 
Image of an elm tree with Dutch Elm Disease
Elm Tree with Dutch Elm Disease


Dutch elm disease is caused by the fungus Ophiostoma not-ulmi, which invades the water-conducting vessels of elms. The leaves of trees wilt, turn yellow or brown and then fall. Another diagnostic feature is the formation of brown or green streaks in the infected sapwood. This discoloration is visible when the bark is peeled back on symptomatic branches. Most elm species are susceptible to this disease.

Symptoms of Dutch elm disease

DED symptoms usually start with the yellowing of foliage on a single branch. The foliage wilts, browns and eventually falls off. As the disease spreads more and more branches begin to show the same symptoms until the tree fully wilts and dies. When looking at the xylem (wood directly under the bark) brown streaking can be observed

Signs of Dutch elm disease

In lab testing is required to see any signs of the fungi.

Disease cycle of Dutch elm disease 

The fungus is spread by elm bark beetles which feed on and breed in elm trees. The fungus also can spread to adjacent healthy elms through grafted root systems.

Type of Sample Needed for Diagnosis and Confirmation

The Iowa State University Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic can help you to investigate and confirm if you plant has this disease. If your sample is from outside of Iowa please do not submit it to the Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic without contacting us. Please the Contact information for each states diagnostic laboratory for U.S. residents.  

We are looking for a very specific sample; please follow these instructions as much as possible:

  • Select 3 to 6 living branches from the symptomatic area in a tree.
  • Select branches 1/2-1 inch in diameter (we need branches, not twigs) and 6 to 12 inches in length.
  • Check for sapwood discoloration as shown in figure 4 of the publication “Dutch-Elm-Disease-and-Disease-Resistant-Elms-Sustainable-Urban-Landscapes
  • The twigs with discolored sapwood are what we are looking for.
  • Collect the sample only when you can either deliver it directly to the PID Clinic right away or to send it overnight (never on a Friday!).
  • Follow our submission instructions on the Clinic website for woody plants  
  • Place your completed submission form along with the samples in a crush-proof box.
  • How to drop off or mail the sample visit our page Clinic Services and Information
  • Submission form and current fees, visit: Clinic Services and Information

In some cases, the help of an arborist is needed to collect branches if they are out of reach. For information on how to choose an arborist see the resource Choosing an Arborist

Image of vascular streaking caused by Dutch Elm Disease
Vascular streaking caused by Dutch Elm Disease

Management of Dutch elm disease

Sanitation, the removal and proper disposal of all dead or dying elms, is the key to successfully managing DED. This involves early identification of the disease and immediate removal of infected elms. Prompt debarking, chipping, burning, or burying elm wood makes the wood unsuitable for beetles. Management may also include root graft disruption, the breaking of root connections between diseased and healthy trees to prevent the fungus from spreading from tree to tree through root grafts.

Therapeutic pruning is the removal of infected portions of an elm and is effective only if the elm has been inoculated by beetles. If the fungus is on the main stem or has come into the tree through grafted roots, pruning will not be successful. Systemic fungicides, when properly injected into elms inoculated by bark beetles, may save trees in the early stages of Dutch elm disease when less than 10 percent of the crown has wilted. These chemicals are injected into the root flares by a certified pesticide applicator.

For more information see this ISUEO publication and this US forest service about Dutch Elm Disease.

Fungicide applications may be avoided by following good Integrated Pest Management practices like those listed in this encyclopedia article. Often, the only preventative application is effective to manage plant diseases. If the problem requires a fungicide, state law requires the user to read and follow all labels accordingly. For more information, read Proper fungicide use.

Last reviewed:
April 2022

Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Yard and Garden, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on September 1, 2016. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.