By Laura Gardner, Master Gardener in Training
I was out for a walk earlier this summer and noticed that a number of trees in my neighbourhood have lumps on their leaves, leaf stalks, shoots, or at the ends of their branches. At first glance you might be alarmed and think they are diseased, but many are the homes of tiny insects such as aphids, mites, sawflies, psyllids, and midges. They are often quite numerous and they come in different shapes and sizes. A gall is formed through the expansion of plant cells—similar to a tumour. This may be triggered by organisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, or insects. Insects induce the galls through actions such as oviposition (inserting the egg into the plant tissue), the release of chemicals by the female and eggs, and through feeding. It is a shelter for the young and protects them from predators. While sometimes causing leaf deformity, in the majority of cases, galls are a cosmetic concern and do not harm the tree.
Here are a few you may encounter that are caused by insects:
These variable shaped galls specific to Populus deltoids (Eastern cottonwood) are the homes of an aphid called Mordwilkoja vagabunda (Poplar Vagabond Aphid). New galls are a light colour but become darker with age. Each gall releases upwards of 2,000-winged offspring in mid-July to early August. Sounds like it could have been the inspiration for a science fiction novel or movie.
Rabdophaga strobiloides (Willow Pinecone Gall Midge) are found at the ends of branches of various Salix spp. (Willow). What is amazing about these structures is that up to 31 different insects use them for their young—residing in the papery-like folds of the gall.[i] The galls are also frequently predated by birds and parasitic wasps.[ii] The biodiversity that Willows support is wide and for this they are known to be keystone species—they are also among the earliest plants to flower in the spring and support emerging pollinators like Queen Bumblebees.
Euura proxima (Willow Redgall Sawfly) frequents certain Salix spp. (Willow). This gall can be identified by its red bean-like appearance on the leaves. Sawfly larvae are often mistaken for Butterfly or Moth caterpillars. They can be distinguished by the number of abdominal prolegs: the former has six or more and the latter five or less.
Pachypsylla celtidismamma (Hackberry Nipple Gall Maker) is a Psyllid (Jumping Plant Lice) that forms round, often clustered galls on the underside of Celtis (Hackberry) trees. Adults spend the winter in cracks of the tree bark itself or even in nearby buildings.
The Eriophyid mite, Vasates quadripedes (Maple Bladder Gall) forms on Acer spp (Maple) such as the upper leaves of this Acer x freemanii ‘Autumn Blaze’ (Freeman Maple ‘Autumn Blaze’). The galls first appear as green, then turn to red, and finally black. The mites overwinter in the creases of the tree’s bark.
So, if your trees have strange growths on them, check out the wonderful web site https://gallformers.org. There you can identify galls by their specific host trees, the form of the galls, and their location on the trees. You can also narrow your search down to those that occur in Ontario. Another good site for identification is https://www.bugguide.net, a comprehensive database of insects for the US and Canada.
[i] Willow Pinecone Gall Midge. Minnesota Seasons. http://www.minnesotaseasons.com/Insects/willow_pinecone_gall_midge.html#:~:text=It%20consists%20of%20numerous%2C%20stunted,shape%20resembles%20a%20pine%20cone
[ii] Van Hezewijk, B.H. and Roland, J. (2003), Gall size determines the structure of the Rabdophaga strobiloides host–parasitoid community. Ecological Entomology, 28: 593-603. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2311.2003.00553.x