MEMBERS of the public are being urged not to pick wild rhododendron leaves for wreaths or decorations this festive season – in case they end up spreading a deadly tree disease.

Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) has warned that Rhododendron ponticum is an invasive species that can quickly smother a woodland and kill off ground vegetation. It is also a carrier of Phytophthora ramorum, which attacks and kills larch trees.

The disease can’t be eradicated and the only way to slow its rate of spread is to prevent the spores that cause the disease from being carried to new, uninfected sites. Once the disease infects larch trees the only available response is to fell the affected trees and those surrounding them.

Alan Gale, FLS adaptation programme manager, said: “Rhododendron is a real threat to woodland ecosystems and needs to be managed vigorously to prevent it from killing off ground vegetation, but it is also a carrier of a disease that has had a devastating impact on larch. There are now many locations across Scotland where woodland managers are having to meet the requirements of statutory plant health notices and fell infected trees.

“Unfortunately, rhododendron is an attractive plant for use in flower arrangements and Christmas wreaths – and stems picked in a forest need not show any obvious signs of infection. Members of the public might also not know if the disease is present in the woods they visit so in terms of biosecurity, it’s better to not take the risk."

READ MORE: Infected larch trees on Arran to be cleared​

The risk of transmission lies in the incorrect disposal of rhododendron stems and leaves and infected material, if it ends up on a compost pile – or at the bottom of the garden - close to susceptible hosts.

There is also a risk that woodland visitors taking rhododendron material from infected areas will carry the disease-causing spores to uninfected sites in the mud and forest debris on their boots, walking poles or car or bike tyres.

Alan added: “Our ‘Keep it Clean’ biosecurity advice urges visitors to help us slow the spread of this disease by taking a few minutes to brush or wipe off boots, bike wheels, tent pegs and even their dog’s paws before and after visiting a woodland.

“We would also ask that people don’t take anything out of the forest that they didn’t take in with them.

“Everyone working together to adopt new habits will have a positive impact on our forests, help to slow the spread of tree pests and diseases and buy the time to research and develop other actions that we can take to ensure the long term health of our woodlands.”

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