Rhizosphaera Needle Cast

Need to know: 

  • Can infect spruce, fir, cedar, and pine trees. 
  • Symptoms include needles turning brown then black as fungus takes over needles.  
  • Optimal conditions are during excess moisture and humidity. 
  • Manage by aiming to reduce spread to healthy tissues. Eventually new needles will replace the old, diseased needles.  
  • In severe cases, fungicides can be used. 


Rhizosphaera needle cast is the most common disease on spruce trees that is received in the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic. Rhizosphaera needle cast is caused by fungal pathogens within the genus Rhizosphaera. This genus also infects several conifer species including; fir, cedar, spruce, and pine

Symptoms of Rhizosphaera needle cast

Rhizosphaera on Blue Spruce needles
Rhizosphaera on Blue Spruce needles

Disease symptoms include a browning or purpling of needles, which eventually drop from the tree leaving bare patches. This symptom gives the disease its name “needle cast”. Typically symptoms first appear on the lower branches of a tree and work from the inside of the tree out. 

Faint yellow bands can be seen on newly infected needles. Needles can turn brown and then black as the fungus takes over the needle. Branches lower to the ground are more commonly affected with the disease traveling upwards and outwards in conditions are favorable. Trees that have been reinfected for multiple years may sparse hollow appearances as the needles die.

Signs of Rhizosphaera needle cast

Small black fruiting structures (pycnidia) can be seen under slight magnification on infected needles the spring after an infection. Severely infected needles turn black due to the sheer number of pycnidia. 

Disease cycle of Rhizosphaera needle cast

Optimal conditions for Rhizosphaera spp. are during times of excess moisture and humidity.  This disease is common in the spring but we receive samples anytime throughout the growing season.

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. 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.  If your sample is from outside of Iowa please do not submit it to the Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic without contacting us

Management of Rhizosphaera needle cast

Once a tree is diagnosed with Rhizosphaera needle cast, the management tactics aim to reduce the spread of the disease to healthy tissue. One common misunderstanding about this disease is that once needles become infected they can be “cured”. Once needles are infected they cannot be healed or cured and will eventually fall off of the tree. While there are fungicides that help to manage this disease, the main use is in protecting new needles from the fungal pathogen. With patience, new needles can eventually help to fill in the bare patches caused by the disease initially. While fungicides are an option, there are several other ways to stay on top of this disease and keep your trees healthy.

 Blue Spruce tree infected with Rhizosphaera
 Blue Spruce tree infected with Rhizosphaera

Maintaining plant health Rhizosphaera needle cast

Prevention is the first line of defense against Rhizosphaera needle cast. In order for disease to occur three things need to happen; the pathogen needs to be present, the environment needs to be conducive for disease development and there needs to be a host that is susceptible to disease. One option for management of this disease is to simply not plant susceptible trees. 

When considering spruce trees; blue spruce is the most common and most susceptible host of Rhizosphaera spp, followed by black hills spruce. Norway spruce would be a less susceptible tree. Other conifers including pine, fir and cedar are rarely infected with Rhizosphaera. In situation where spruce is the tree of choice, try to avoid blue spruce and take a look at Norway spruce as an alternative.

In situations where planting susceptible spruce trees is unavoidable, going out of the way to maintain plant health can be a step in the right direction. Remember, spruce trees are not native to Iowa and at times the climate can lead to stress on an otherwise healthy tree. This stress is often the tipping point that allows pathogens to infect. Some things to consider in keeping a spruce happy are; planting depth, watering practices, nutrients, soil type, location, spacing etc.

Scouting for Disease

Keep a close eye on existing trees. The sooner symptoms are noticed, the sooner action can be taken to prevent a disease from getting out of control. If the symptoms described above and in the pictures below are noticed, examine the affected area carefully.Rhizosphaera spp picnidia (the fungal fruiting structures) are sometimes visible using a hand lens for magnification. Picnidia can be seen as small black specks that will appear in the stomata of each individual needle. Depending on environmental conditions (dry or hot weather) and infection timing, you may not always be able to find these structures or the needles bearing these structures may have been shed.

Keep in mind, there is a look a-like disease called stigmina needle cast. Symptoms of stigmina needle cast are almost identical to those of rhizosphaera needle cast. High powered magnification is required to differentiate between the two.

 Management may be similar for these Rhizosphaera spp and Stigmina spp; however effects of fungicides on Stigmina spp have not been thoroughly studied. This is why accurate diagnosis is critical.  Anyone considering treatment of their conifers or other trees can visit the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic website at clinic.ipm.iastate.edu, to learn more about how to submit a sample to confirm the cause of a problem. Also see our previous HHPN article about collecting samples for suspected rhizosphaera needle cast.

 Blue Spruce tree infected with Rhizosphaera
Blue Spruce tree infected with Rhizosphaera


With many fungal pathogens like Rhizosphaera spp, removing infected tissue can help to slow the spread of disease. Since spores of the fungus are spread by wind and rain splash, removing the infected tissue can reduce this spread. If you spot the disease early enough you may be able to prune away infected branches and reduce the spread of the fungus. It is also helpful to prune while the plant is dormant and during dry conditions.

 Pruning can also help increase airflow to reduce the amount of humidity held inside the trees canopy. Since Rhizosphaera spp prefers moist environments, it is important to prune. This can also be helpful in large stands of trees that have grown into one another.

Chemical Management of Rhizosphaera needle cast

When all other management is not enough, fungicides can be used to help manage rhizosphaera needle cast. Precise timing is necessary for this method to help, since protection of new growth is the motivation for spraying. Due to the variability of typical spring weather from year to year, it is better to time sprays by observing the new growth. When needle length of the new growth is roughly half the size of old growth, the first spray should be applied. A second spray should then be applied 3-4 weeks later. Sprays may need to be made for 2-3 consecutive years depending on severity. Products containing chlorothalonil or other active ingredients listed for rhizosphaera needle cast can be used for treatment. Remember to always follow the instructions on product labeling.

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

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