‘I’ve spent a lot of years in greenhouses killing a lot of bad bugs and bad diseases, I’ve never seen anything like this’
The dire situation of boxwood blight, a relatively new fungal disease in Virginia, is wreaking havoc in the town of Washington and beyond.
“This stuff spreads faster than anything,” Mark Smith, estate gardener at the Inn at Little Washington, warned three dozen county residents at an emergency Town Hall meeting last week. “All my life in horticulture — and I’ve spent a lot of years in greenhouses killing a lot of bad bugs and bad diseases — I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The blight has gotten so bad so fast — as in weeks, not months — that Rappahannock County Extension Agent Kenner Love figures that half of the boxwoods just in the town itself have been impacted by the destructive disease.
“We estimated that about 50 percent of the boxwoods in the town had boxwood blight,” confirmed Tim Ohlwiler, horticulture extension agent in the Fauquier County Extension Office, who accompanied Love to Washington’s Town Hall meeting.
“This summer was really the perfect storm,” Ohlwiler told the Rappahannock News. “With the weather this year it just exploded. It does happen fast.”
And the blight, he said, isn’t confined to the county seat. It’s been discovered elsewhere in Rappahannock County, as well as Culpeper “and dozens of places in Fauquier this year,” Ohlwiler said.
Mary Ann Kuhn, owner of the historic Middleton Inn in Washington, told the Town Hall gathering that sixty of her estate’s boxwoods have been destroyed.
“And these are old plants,” Smith pointed out.
The good news, said the Inn’s horticulturist: “Yes it’s serious, but yes you can fight it. They’ve been fighting it in Europe since 2003 [before] it came over here in 2011. The chateaus in France and England still have boxwoods. Have they ripped out a lot of boxwoods? Yes, seven-figures plus — multi-millions of dollars of boxwoods have been destroyed in Europe. But you know what, they’re rebounding. There’s several things that we can do . . . on a much smaller scale.”
The quick spreading fungus spores, which mainly attack English and to a lesser extent American boxwoods, first appear as brown leaf spots with black streaking on the plant stems. In short time the leaves fall off and coat the ground.
The blight surfaced in Virginia the very same year it arrived in America, introduced it was later discovered when planting new but contaminated boxwoods — supplied by a single national retailer — into gardens of established plants. In the seven years since, Virginia Cooperative Extension agents have been warning retailers and homeowners alike to be on the lookout for the blight, its spores also spread by contaminated pruning shears and clothing and shoes worn by commercial landscaping companies.
Which is why when impacted boxwoods are dug up and removed the workers don hazardous material Tyvek suits, which are later burned or buried.
One positive, said Ohlwiler, is that the blight isn’t transferred by the wind from one distant location to another. “It has to get moved there by somebody. People move it. It’s not going to blow in there.”
That said, as recently as a few years ago boxwood blight was not widespread in any one county of Virginia. That no longer seems to be the case.
Longtime Harris Hollow resident Beth DeBergh, as chairman of the Garden Club of Warren County, warned in 2016 about the dangers Virginia faced due to the blight. “This is an issue that could greatly impact the town of Washington,” she wrote to the Rappahannock News.
This past week DeBergh was writing to the newspaper again: “It looks like our worst nightmare has returned and hit the town of Washington. So sad!”
As Ohlwiler observed, this summer’s endless precipitation didn’t help matters, given boxwood blight thrives in humid and rainy weather.
“We’ve just come out of the worst summer possible for boxwood blight,” Smith similarly told residents, stressing that all is not lost.
“Because it’s a fungus it can be fought with fungicides, with cultural control, sanitization, doing the right thing,” he said. “We already started engaging in practices here [at the Inn] in the last six weeks that are working. We’ve already stopped the spread of it.”
The horticulturalist said there are two industry-represented fungicides available for homeowner use, easily purchased from local farmer co-ops or national hardware chains.
“You can spray it for yourself,” he said. “If you have [blight] on your property now make plans to get rid of it as soon as humanly possible. Even if don’t have it spray the fungicide. It’s going to do you a lot of good, it really will.”
For homeowners who completely lose their boxwoods there are numerous options for replacement, apart from English and American boxwoods.
Mike Wenger, who teaches the RappU course “Invasive Plants in Rappahannock County: Understanding, Identification, Control and Replacement,” happened to be leading a field trip to Rappahannock County Park at the same time the emergency meeting was taking place at Town Hall.
“Inkberry holly would be a good replacement,” Wenger suggested. “It looks a little bit like boxwood, but it’s a native. It has a berry, it’s got boy and girl plants, and grows about the same size. It would be a really good choice.”
The inkberry holly (also called Appalachian Tea) is native to eastern North America and furnishes reliable greenery all year long. Like boxwood, the inkberry can be grown in a row or separately, and tolerates partial shade to full sun. The plant’s hardiness and flexibility is its selling point.