Historic sycamore on Route 7 in Great Barrington isn't dying - it has a fungus

The leafless state of a 200-year-old American sycamore tree along Route 7 in Great Barrington has many motorists concerned, but the town's tree warden says it is holding its own despite a fungus called sycamore anthracnose and is looking healthier than all the other sycamores in town.

GREAT BARRINGTON — The condition of a 200-year-old American sycamore tree is worrying many Berkshire County motorists traveling along Route 7.

And they are taking their concerns about the leafless state of this historic grand dame to town officials.

"Everybody is asking me, `What's wrong with the tree at McDonald's?' " said tree warden Michael Peretti.

Peretti said that, while the tree looks rough, it is holding its own despite a fungus called sycamore anthracnose, something the town treats with a fungicide every two to three years at a cost of up to $1,000 a pop. And Sheffield-based Haupt Tree Co. donates its time to prune it.

But this tree is looking healthier than all the other sycamores in town, he added.

"There's one at the Mahaiwe Cemetery with five leaves on it — that's scary," Peretti said.

A wet spring followed by a dry summer is the culprit, Peretti said. Fungal pores will multiply and infect the new leaves during the wet weather. But the tree typically will begin to leaf out in warmth and drier weather. And that already is happening.

The University of Massachusetts-Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment explains further on its website:

"During wet spring weather, fruiting structures mature in discarded leaves from the previous season and in the bark of blighted twigs and cankered branches to disperse spores via wind and rain splash. These spores infect emerging shoots and developing leaves, which rapidly wilt and die," the website says. "Because of the pathogen's ability to overwinter in twig and branch cankers, it can readily produce spores that easily infect newly developing tissues nearby in the canopy."

Peretti and the tree committee oversee every public tree on town-owned property. Trees on Main Street downtown, for instance, are about to get fertilized once the new fiscal budget kicks in Monday.

But this sycamore is on state-owned land. And Peretti said the state Department of Transportation won't help with trees — he has asked.

"We tried to get them to pay attention to it," he said. "They said there is no funding to protect what I call heritage trees. They said, "If we do it for you, we have to do it for everyone.' "

DOT spokesman Maxwell Huber said the agency is hiring an arborist to look at the tree, and that officials "will be coordinating with the town if there are any potential options to increase the longevity of the tree and [if] the town wishes to assume responsibilities for these options."

But Peretti said the town isn't going to let the trees fester with disease. It's taking care of all the heritage trees along state-owned highways, including the elms.

"We do it because we know its not gonna get done, and once you stop treatment, we know they'll get infected," he said. "There are some beautiful trees that, if we didn't treat them, they wouldn't make it."

He said the sycamores never were planted. They are native to the area, and sprung up from seed.

Peretti has a regular day job unrelated to trees, but he happens to have an arboriculture degree from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

"I still have my affection for trees," he said, noting that it seems like "everything has to be treated now."

When asked why that is, Peretti said it was something about the environment. "Possibly strange weather cycles."

But, he says, one thing is clear.

"They're just a reflection of our environment," he said. "Trees are a mirror."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.