Oak Wilt

Need to know: 

  • Transmission occurs by root grafts or beetle vectors. 
  • Leaves of infected oaks can wilt, brown at the edges, and fall off. 
  • Preventative measures include avoiding wounding or pruning oaks from April through July and plant trees 50 feet apart. 
  • Fungicide injections are available to protect healthy trees.  

Overview of oak wilt

Image of oak wilt
Oak wilt symptoms

Oak wilt is a serious disease that can infect many oak species. It is caused by the fungus, Ceratocystis fagacearum. Red oaks are very susceptible to the oak wilt fungus and can die within 4-6 weeks. White and bur oaks are moderately resistant to the disease. Trees can be infected by the fungus through root grafts or by beetle vectors that carry spores to newly wounded trees. When a tree is infected it tree tries to protect itself by producing gummy material called tyloses which can clog the water conducting vessels. Water is prevented from moving to the canopy and leaves begin to wilt. Leaves of infected oaks can wilt, turn brown at the edges, and fall off. The outermost ring of sapwood sometimes turns brown and appears as streaks when the bark is peeled; or as a ring when the branch is cut in cross-section. Because oak wilt is often confused with other disorders, positive identification requires recovery of the causal fungus from the tree.

Symptoms of oak wilt

Symptoms and progression of Oak wilt can be slightly different in red, white, and live oaks. Red oak symptoms begin with foliage tuning off-green to bronze in color. Necrosis on the leaves begins at the leaf margin and works its way in towards the veins of the leaf. Often these symptoms begin in the upper portion of the foliage. From there progression can be quick with the entire tree wilting in several weeks to months. Light blueish gray streaking can be seen in the outermost layer of wood directly under the bark. In white oaks the wilting is more scattered and may progress slower as most of the time they are slightly more resilient. Infected leaves turn a reddish-brown color. In live oaks venial chlorosis and necrosis are observed while the leaf tissue remains green.

Signs of oak wilt

Fungal mats may be seen on the inner bark and out wood a couple months after the tree has died.

Type of Sample Needed for Diagnosis and Confirmation

 wilt on the red oak group (A) and wilt on the white oak group (B). Discoloration under the back on vascular tissue (sapwood) on the branches (C).
Leaves with oak wilt symptoms: browning/bronzing on the white oak group (A) and on the red oak group  (B). Discoloration under the back on vascular tissue (sapwood) on the branches (C).

The Iowa State University Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic can help you to investigate and confirm if you plant has this disease. Please see our website for current forms, fees, and instructions on collecting and packing samples. Contact information for each states diagnostic laboratory for U.S. residents can be located at the NPDN website.  If you have a sample from outside of Iowa, please DO NOT submit it to the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic without contacting us.

Sampling time: July to early October. Stop collecting samples after annual leaf fall begins in the fall. Avoid pruning or taking oak samples between the months of April and June. This is the high-risk period for oak wilt transmission, where both peak spore and mat formation and peak insect vector flight coincide.

Oak wilt sampling checklist

Download a printable checklist

Check out our short video below and follow the forest service guidelines at this page.  In brief:                                                                        

  • Collect the sample only when you can either deliver it directly to the Clinic or to send it overnight (never send on a Friday!).
  • Prepare a styrofoam or plastic chest and ice packs (see example in next page). Refrigerate the sample (from collection to delivery). The pathogen that causes oak wilt cannot survive in hot weather. If the samples are left in the truck or by the house porch for as few as a couple of hours the chances of recovering the pathogen significantly decrease.
  • Observe symptoms, look for the symptoms (wilting, yellowing and/or bronzing).
  • Select branches where symptoms are developing. Collect 3 to 6 living branches from the symptomatic area in a tree. Branches should be at least 1 in diameter and 6 to 8 inches in length (we need branches, not twigs).  With a knife peel the bark and inspect for vascular discoloration. When discoloration found, collect additional branches from that symptomatic limb.
  • Avoid sending dead branches.
  • Select some leaves, sending symptomatic leaves (bronzing) is a bonus, it gives important diagnostic information.
  • Place your completed submission form in a bag to prevent it from getting wet.
  • Ship the package early in the week via overnight delivery. Do not send on a Friday. Walk-ins are welcome!
Oak wilt sample and packaging example. Top left Styrofoam cooler. Top right, note the icepack (red arrows) on each side of the branches in the bag. Note submission form filled and enclosed in a separate bag. Bottom pictures, please remember to include leaves samples.
Oak wilt packaging example. Top left Styrofoam cooler. Top right,  note the icepack (red arrows) on each side of the branches in the bag. Note submission form filled and enclosed in a separate bag. Bottom pictures,  please remember to include leaves samples. 

Management of oak wilt

Avoid wounding or pruning oaks from April through July since sap attracts the beetles that carry the oak wilt fungus.  Check risk of oak wilt page. Severing root grafts connecting infected and healthy trees up to 50 feet apart can be used to prevent spread. Fungicide injections are now available to protect healthy trees from the disease. For more information about oak wilt visit this bulletin.

For more information about oak wilt visit these resources:

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.