Murrysville native works to ‘Fight the Blight’ among Slippery Rock pear trees |
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Patrick Varine
Above, a Cleveland Select pear tree in full bloom on the streets of Slippery Rock. Many of the trees, planted about two decades ago, have fallen victim to a pathogen called fire blight.

Main Street in Slippery Rock is lined with a large number of Cleveland Select flowering pear trees, whose snow-white blossoms typically appear for a few weeks in April.

Unfortunately, many of the trees look as though they have burnt leaves, the result of a contagious pathogen called fire blight.

Luke Gregory, a Slippery Rock University senior and Murrysville native, is hoping to change that.

“Plants don’t complain,” Gregory said. “Trees are often overlooked so people have to look out for them. This fire blight has swept through and infected a lot of them (along Main Street), so we’re trying to remove the trees that have it and plant a greater diversity of trees.”

With that in mind, Gregory and SRU biology professor David Krayesky started Fight the Blight . The project’s goal is to remove infected pear trees and replace them with new species such as Kousa dogwoods, redbuds and Washington Hawthorns, while increasing the variety of species near Main Street to include hornbeams, ivory silks, Linden trees, Prospector elms and royal burgundy flowering cherry trees.

“The diversity of trees helps with resiliency,” Gregory said. “An infection can wipe out a whole population in one season. Also, the trees we’re choosing to plant are heartier and able to resist things like salt pushed up from treated roads.”

Unfortunately, all that landscaping comes at a cost. As Gregory and Krayesky pursue their initial funding goal of $7,000 to get the project going in the spring of 2019, they are seeking donations as well as more student involvement.

The Flight the Blight project is part of Gregory’s leadership practicum course. He already helped 22 SRU students obtain “Tree Tender” certification through a course offered earlier this fall by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Bureau of Forestry, in partnership with the Penn State University Extension Office.

“It’s important to have the tree certification taught to underclassmen,” said Gregory, who as a “Tree Tender” knows how to properly prune and water trees, which is critical in the first two years after they are planted. “It’s all fine if we can plant trees but if no one maintains them, they won’t reach their potential.”

Improper pruning is one of the reasons fire blight spreads. In addition to spreading by wind and rain from diseased to healthy plants, the bacteria can be transmitted by pruning tools that are not properly sanitized after being used on infected trees.

Krayesky developed a management plan and has connected with volunteers from the community, but he said students like Gregory have built momentum for the project.

“He’s got a lot of initiative and he’s a hard worker,” said Krayesky, noting Gregory’s interest in local government and pursuit of a graduate degree in plant biology. “Those are the types of people we need in the future: people who are interested in taking care of their community.”

Donations are being accepted at , and The SRU Foundation has agreed to match all donations up to $5,000.

Click here for tips on battling fire blight from horticulturist Jessica Walliser.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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