University of Maryland Extension

Witches' Broom - Trees and Shrubs

Witches' broom

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Witches' brooms are characterized by a proliferation of shoots growing close together. The shoots are usually shorter, stockier, and have an upright but more compact growth habit than normal. Witches' brooms may be caused by fungal, viral, or mycoplasma-like organisms (MLOs). Eriophyid mites, mistletoe, environmental damage, or a mutation in vegetative cells may also cause witches' brooming. In most cases, the causal agent kills a growing point and results in the prolific growth of side shoots. The growth around the witches' broom may become less vigorous, indicating that the witches broom may divert nutrients from other parts of the plant. When witches' brooms are caused by mutation, horticulturists sometimes propagate them for breeding of dwarf plants.

Mycoplasma-like organisms (MLOs) are also called phytoplasmas. They are related to bacteria, lack a rigid cell wall, and have an amoeba like shape. MLOs appear to colonize in the sap conducting tissue (phloem) and damage the tissue by interrupting the sap flow. Diseases caused by MLOs are elm yellows, ash yellows, and bunch diseases of walnut. Witches' brooming, chlorosis, and general decline are symptoms of these diseases. MLOs may also be responsible for witches' brooming in lilac, dogwood, willow, apple, black locust, honeylocust, papaya, peach, and sassafras.

Witches' brooms can be a symptom of fungal or viral infection. The fungus Ascomycetes causes witches' broom of cherry. The powdery mildew fungus, Sphaerotheca lanestris, may cause witches' brooms on live oak, willow oak, and ninebark. The fungus, Gymnosporangium nidus-avis, causes juniper broom rust. Other fungi cause witches' brooming primarily in evergreen plants.

When witches' brooming is noticed, prune out the affected parts, if possible. When fungi, virus or mycoplasma-like organisms are responsible for witches' brooms, the disease may have spread throughout the tree, so that pruning may not provide control.

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