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Plant Galls

May 21, 2003

Many plants throughout Illinois are subject to attack by gall-forming organisms. Organisms that can cause galls on plants include viruses, bacteria, fungi, nema-todes, mistletoe, mites, and insects. Insects--including beetles, wasps, moths, flies, midges, sawflies, thrips, scales, adelgids, aphids, psyllids, and twig borers--produce most galls. Many plants are hosts of insect gall-formers, but particularly cottonwood and other poplars, willow, eucalyptus, ficus, and oak. Oaks (Quercus sp.) are susceptible to a wide diversity of gall-forming insects. A gall is an abnormal plant swelling caused by the gall-forming insect, which lives part of its life in the galls, feeding inside the gall on the surrounding contents of plant cells.

The insect feeds on plant cells that are rich in carbohydrates, protein, and fats. As the insect feeds, it injects growth-inducing chemicals into the plant tissues. The injected chemicals cause plant cells to abandon their normal growth pattern. This creates enlarged cells that divide until an abundance of reorganized tissue surrounds the insect. Insect gallers may control plant development in different ways, including directly disrupting the plantís hormonal balance or altering the cellsí DNA. Insect feeding or egg laying may form galls.

The primary group of insects that form galls on oaks are cynipid wasps, which are responsible for approximately 80% of oak galls. These galls are generally found on leaves and branches. Cynipid wasp adults are 1 to 6 millimeters long, antlike, and deep black in color. The galls they form can range from 1 to more than 50 millimeters in diameter and are round or irregular in shape. Many oak galls are large and very apparent. Female cynipid wasps lay eggs into actively growing meristematic tissue. The feeding of the wasp larvae causes a growth reaction in oak leaves, which results in the formation of galls. The wasp larva feeds on the gall tissue and pupates within the gall; then the adult chews an exit hole to emerge. The life cycle of gall forming wasps may be complex, involving alternations between generations of sexual and asexual individuals. Galls of these generations may differ in appearance and may be found on different plant parts. Thus, a single species of wasp can contain members that cause two distinctly different types of galls. This has led to confusion in determining the many types of oak galls.

Oak galls are generally not considered a problem as the galls cause minimal, if any, apparent reduction in plant vigor and growth. In fact, I believe they make oaks look more attractive (this is my bias). However, two galls that may damage oaks are the horned oak gall (Callirhytis cornigera) and the gouty oak gall (Callirhytis quercuspunctata). Cynipid wasps cause both galls. These galls can girdle plant stems and may cause significant branch dieback. The best way to manage oak galls is simply by pruning them out--because once the gall is formed, options are limited.

Author: Raymond A. Cloyd


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