Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jack Frost Does Not Work Alone

Dead canes of a flower carpet rose
As March was going out like a lamb, a nursery submitted four container-grown shrubs to the PDIC: three rose cultivars and a lilac. Very young shoots on these plants were withering and dying. At least in the case of the lilac – and possibly with the roses, too – the new flush of growth had been hit by the last freezes of the spring. While you’d expect the tender shoots to be blasted by the cold, in this case the woody stems were also dying. Bacterial streaming was seen in much of the stem tissue. We don’t see fire blight on rose or lilac, so what was happening?

The grower suspected Pseudomonas blight. He was right.

A bacterium and its victims

Bacteria were cultured from the stem tissue of the affected plants. Since only Pseudomonas species were of interest, only colonies fluorescent* on a special agar medium were chosen for further work-up. Unfortunately there are a lot of nonpathogenic (non-disease-causing) Pseudomonas species in this world, so it took a little time to sift through the isolates and confirm the diagnosis as Pseudomonas syringae.

Wilting new shoot of a container-grown lilac.
Although Pseudomonas syringae is named after lilac (Syringa), it is capable of causing cankers and dieback in a wide variety of plants. Besides lilac, we’ve found it on the following woody ornamentals: cherry-laurel, flowering quince, Indian hawthorn, Yoshino cherry, and multiple varieties of rose.  In addition, we’ve recovered it from leaf spots of hydrangea and Japanese holly. Bacterial canker caused by Ps. syringae can be a serious problem in peach orchards, but with woody ornamentals we almost always see it in nursery situations. One exception came in last year, on the twig of a weeping willow from a home landscape. As the weather warms up and cankers become inactive, this disease becomes more difficult to detect. According to the PDIC's records, almost every case of Pseudomonas bacterial canker on woody ornamentals since 2008 was diagnosed between February and May. The bacterium is still present on and within plants during the summer, but what I believe is happening is that the hotter temperatures slow down this particular bacterium at the same time as they're (up to a point) invigorating most plants, thus shutting down the disease process temporarily.

Note: We occasionally find Ps. syringae causing leaf spots on ornamentals in the greenhouse, and there are variants – called pathovars – that cause certain very specific problems such as bacterial speck of tomato and angular leaf spot of cucurbits.

How Pseudomonas syringae does its dirty work

Blighted shoots and a Pseudomonas stem canker on rose
Like many bacteria, Pseudomonas syringae is able to live and multiply on plant surfaces. This is known as its epiphytic (“on the plant”) phase. In the recent case, the bacteria were almost surely present before the spring flush occurred, and so were able to strike quickly. These bacteria enter plants following injury, in particular frost damage. What’s more, the bacterial cells actually promote freeze damage through a process known as ice nucleation. How this works is succinctly expressed by Sinclair and Lyon:

"Ice-nucleating strains of P. syringae and certain other bacteria can trigger ice formation in plant tissues cooled to between -2 and -5ºC [28 to 23 ºF] but not acclimated to low temperature. Ice then disrupts cells, causing symptoms of frost damage. In the absence of an ice-nucleating factor, frost-sensitive plants may tolerate brief cooling to these temperatures because water in their tissues remains in liquid form, supercooled." (Diseases of Trees and Shrubs, 2nd Ed. 2005. p.368)

For more information, see this review by Gurian-Sherman and Lindow. You might also check out this laboratory video of ice nucleation by bacteria added to supercooled water.

As if this ice-nucleation trick were not enough, Pseudomonas syringae also produces a toxin that damages plant cells.

How to reduce your losses

The most important way to minimize damage to woody plants from Pseudomonas syringae is to limit the stressors that predispose plants to infection. Stress factors include pruning injury and frost injury. Bacterial canker of stone fruits caused by Pseudomonas syringae can be reduced by pruning in the early summer, instead of the fall or winter. Sanitize shears or knives frequently, and avoid working the plants when wet. Don't overfertilize plants, especially when they need to harden off for the winter. Protect plants during cold snaps. Don't allow plants to undergo stress from too much or too little water. Keep foliage and stems as dry as possible by changing irrigation methods or reducing overhead irrigation, which favors and spreads the bacteria. If you’ve already had this problem, Ps. syringae is probably present as epiphytic populations on the surfaces of much of your nursery stock and even the surrounding weeds. There are few chemical options that hold any promise, at least not enough to make a recommendation.

As I write this, winter is getting ready to take one last shot at North Carolina, with freeze warnings up for the western half of the state. It's another opportunity for Pseudomonas syringae, too.

*Chemist’s Corner:

Colonies of fluorescent pseudomonads photographed under UV light.
The fluorescent pigments of Pseudomonas species are seen by shining a long-wave UV lamp on the cultures. These compounds belong to a class of chemicals called siderophores. If you know Latin, you might think that siderophore means “star bearer”, but in this case the root is the Greek word for “iron”. (A big thanks to Roland Wilbur Brown’s 1956 book Composition of Scientific Words for setting me straight.) Iron is an essential element for microbial growth, and siderophores have the important task of scrounging precious iron from the bacteria’s environment.