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Incurable Fungus Deadly to Oak Trees Found in Brooklyn Cemetery

 Green-Wood Cemetery has 478 acres of graves, tombs and statues that date back to 1838.
Green-Wood Cemetery has 478 acres of graves, tombs and statues that date back to 1838.
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Art Presson

BROOKLYN — An oak tree in Brooklyn’s biggest cemetery is headed for an early grave, brought on by an incurable tree fungus detected in the borough for the first time, local and state authorities said.

The disease has been detected in Green-Wood Cemetery following testing by the Department of Environmental Conservation of a sample taken over the summer, cemetery officials said Tuesday.

The affliction, called “oak wilt,” is caused by a fungus that burrows into water-conducting vessels of a tree, constricts its water intake and causes its leaves to drop off, which in turn “rapidly” kills the tree, the DEC said in a Dec. 29 memo warning Brooklyn residents to be on the lookout for the disease.

Oak wilt kills thousands of oaks a year in the eastern United States, the DEC said, but had not been detected in the New York City area until 2016. Last year, testing confirmed oak wilt in four New York counties, including Suffolk County on Long Island.

According to the city’s parks department, the fungus affects red oak trees in particular, which die within one or two years of contracting the disease. Brooklyn has 19,721 street trees belonging to the red oak family, the agency said.

“To limit the potential spread of the disease, Parks is collaborating with NYSDEC to monitor Brooklyn’s trees and test suspected cases,” said Parks Department spokeswoman Maerie Ferguson.

Green-Wood’s staff found the oak wilt-affected tree this past summer and reported it to the state, which collected a sample and sent it to Cornell University where the presence of the fungus was confirmed. The cemetery’s director of horticulture, Joseph Charap, said additional samples from other trees have been taken at Green-Wood since then and tested negative.

“Green-Wood identified this problem early and is working very closely with the DEC, the U.S. Forest Service and Cornell Cooperative Extension. Every possible precaution is being taken to manage the situation,” Charap said in a statement.

More testing in the spring will determine if the disease has spread near the historic cemetery, the parks department said.

To help contain the spread of the disease, the state DEC is prohibiting the removal of live or dead oak wood (including stumps, roots and firewood) outside of Brooklyn unless it has been “chipped to less than one inch,” the agency said.

The agency also asked homeowners and residents to look for oak trees suddenly losing their leaves in summer months, particularly in July and August, and report them to the Forest Health hotline at (866) 640-0652.

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