In July 2010, extensive decline of English ash (Fraxinus excelsior L.) was observed near Chiusi della Verna, Tuscany, in central Italy (altitude 956 m a.s.l.; lat. 43° 41′ 54″ N, long. 11° 56′ 9″E). The symptoms on the tree trunks and leaves included lengthwise bark cracks, detached bark, withering of the crown where the bark was detached, and extensive microphyllia. In September 2010, perithecial stromata were observed in the parts of the tree that had lost their bark. They were applanate and black and fruiting bodies were recognized as Biscogniauxia mediterranea (De Not.) Kuntze (basionym Sphaeria mediterranea (De Not.), Ascomycotina, Xylaraceae), a fungus causing charcoal canker that attacks oaks, Acer spp., Castanea sativa Miller, Fagus sylvatica L., and Platanus acerifolia Willd. The biometric characteristics of 30 stromata were examined. The stromata were slightly convex, ellipsoid, and elongate, 7.2 to 20.5 × 3.5 to 4.2 cm. The perithecia were ovoid to tubular, 0.74 to 0.80 × 0.12 to 0.15 mm; the asci were short and stipitate, 7.9 to 10.0 × 120.2 to 170.4 μm. The ascospores were ovoid, brownish-black, with narrowed and roundish ends, 6.9 to 9.1 × 14.6 to 20.0 μm. Colonies grown on PDA at 25°C for 5 days were grey viewed from the top and black viewed from the dish underside. A comparison with the data in the literature (1) confirmed the macro- and microscopic identification. Traditional identification was further confirmed by sequence information from the rDNA ITS region. A BLAST search of the ITS sequence of our B. mediterranea isolate (GenBank Accession No. JX262798) revealed an exact match (100%) with several reference sequences of the fungus present in the database, mainly from oak hosts. Four branches each of five English ash trees growing in a natural environment were inoculated at the trunk junction with a 10–5 ml ascospore suspension. Control consisted of a branch per tree inoculated with an identical volume of sterile water only. After 25 days, the bark became detached and after a further 15 days the typical black stromata appeared. The pathogen was reisolated from the lesions, confirming Koch's postulates. No symptoms were observed on control branches, which presented healed wounds. B. mediterranea was first detected in 1986 on Quercus cerris L. and Q. pubescens Willd. in the Circeo natural park in central Italy (altitude 50 m a.s.l; lat. 41° 27′ 55″44 N, long. 12° 53′ 53″52 E). From there it spread north to other parts of the country. All oak species in Italy appear to be susceptible. Its northward expansion is likely associated with the high temperature and water stress that have been affecting the Italian peninsula for the last few years (4). Most recently, B. mediterranea has also been reported on Q. cerris in the Karst region of Slovenia (lat. 45° 43′ 03″7 N, long. 13° 45′ 20″ 4 E). This confirms its current spread to the more northerly territories, most likely because of ongoing changes in the climate that are creating optimal conditions for its survival in areas that were previously unsuitable to it.
References: (1) P. Capretti and L. Mugnai, Inform. Fitopatol. 37:39, 1987. (2) D. Jurc and N. Ogris. Plant Pathol. 55:299, 2006. (3) A. Ragazzi. Micologia Italiana 1:29, 2009. (4) A. Vannini and R. Valentini. Tree Physiol. 14:129, 1994.