Friday, December 16, 2011

Poinsettia: Some Common Diseases of the Christmas Flower

Fig. 1. Poinsettia- the Christmas flower
(with permission Benson, et al. 2002. Plant Health Progress
Poinsettia, the Christmas flower, (Fig. 1) was introduced to the United States from Mexico in 1825 by the first U.S. Ambassador to that country, Joel Roberts Poinsett of Greenville, South Carolina (Fig. 2). 
Fig. 2. Joel Roberts Poinsett, first US Ambassador to Mexico
(with permission Benson, et al. 2002. Plant Health
Progress doi:10.1094/PHP-2002-0212-01-RV).
Commercial interest in poinsettia as a potted plant grown in the greenhouse did not get much attention until the 1950s and 60s, when breeding programs developed plants with stiffer stems, multiple shoots at each pinch point, larger flower bracts, and better keeping qualities. Today, poinsettias come in a variety of forms and bract colors. The value of poinsettias is about $145 million per year in the United States with about $17 million coming from North Carolina growers (Fig. 3). Although poinsettias are the Christmas flower, it is only consumer preference that limits year round sale.
Fig. 3. Poinsettias in commercial production
as the flower bracts are beginning to turn red.
Poinsettias are propagated vegetatively by cuttings taken from stock plants usually beginning in late June and early July just when greenhouse temperatures are highest. Cuttings are propagated typically in either polyfoam wedges, rockwool, or direct stuck in the finish size pot. Regardless of propagation strategy, cuttings must be misted several times a day to keep them from wilting until roots form on the stem of the cutting (Fig. 4). 
Fig. 4. Propagation of poinsettia cuttings in polyfoam rooting
wedges under an intermittent mist system.
Note droplets of water on foliage from misters.
(Photo E. Lookabaugh) 
During propagation, growers must avoid or prevent a number of plant diseases that can attack the cuttings. Under extreme moisture conditions, the soft rot bacterium, Erwinia carotovora attacks the cut end of the stem resulting in a mushy, watery rot that kills the cutting (Fig. 5). 
Fig. 5.  Erwinia soft rot has collapsed these poinsettia
cuttings in propagation
(with permission Benson, et al. 2002. Plant Health
Progress doi:10.1094/PHP-2002-0212-01-RV).
Even when misting systems are functioning normally, Rhizoctonia stem rot caused by R. solani can cause a canker on the lower stem that kills the cutting (Fig. 6, 7). When cuttings are stuck directly in potting mix in the finish pot, Pythium rot caused by several species of Pythium as well as Rhizoctonia stem rot can develop, if these pathogens are introduced by faulty sanitation procedures. Healthy cuttings root in about 4 to 6 weeks depending on temperature, if plant diseases do not develop.
Fig.  6. Poinsettia cutting in a polyfoam propagation
 strip with
Rhizoctonia stem rot.  Note brown stem
 lesion at bottom of cutting near foam surface. (Photo Mike Benson)
Fig. 7. Rhizoctonia stem rot. Two close ups of a stem lesion with
the white mycelium of the
Rhizoctonia pathogen present
(with permission Benson, et al. 2002. Plant Health
Progress doi:10.1094/PHP-2002-0212-01-RV).
Cuttings once rooted in polyfoam wedges or rockwool must be transplanted to a soilless potting mix in a pot to finish for retail. The most important foliar disease growers must guard against in this stage of production is gray mold caused by Botrytis cinerea.(Fig 8). As the plant canopy grows and fills in, high humidity in the microclimate of the canopy is an ideal environment for gray mold. Growers must ventilate greenhouses properly to avoid high humidity and some even use bottom heat via air tubes under the greenhouse bench to help dry out the plant canopy. Fungicide sprays may also be used to prevent gray mold.
Fig. 8. Botrytis blight on foliage. Note dead tissue and abundant
 ‘gray mold’
sporulation on the infected tissues. This infection developed
 inside the plant canopy where humidity was high favoring
pathogen infection and
sporulation. (photo Mike Benson)
In the 1990s powdery mildew caused by Oidium spp. caused severe losses for many growers. The disease was particularly devastating because it often times did not develop until the plants already had color in the flower bract and by that time the grower had most of the expense of growing the crop already invested in it (Fig. 9). Growers also were reluctant to use fungicides sprays for powdery mildew control in the late stages of production because of spray residue concerns on the flower bracts. The disease has not been a problem in the last decade, however, due to changing cultivars and better management practices.
Fig. 9. Colonies of powdery mildew on leaves (left) and flower bracts (right)
(with permission Benson, et al. 2002. Plant Health Progress doi:10.1094/PHP-2002-0212-01-RV).
Scab is a stem and foliage disease caused by the fungus Sphaceloma poinsettiae that can occur periodically, resulting in unsalable plants. The most striking symptom of scab is the extra long stems produced by plants infected with this fungus (Fig. 10). Leaf spots also develop on infected plants. Outbreaks of scab usually occur when the pathogen is introduced with poinsettia stock material arriving from Central and South America where the fungus occurs throughout the year.
Fig. 10. Abnormally elongated stems of poinsettia due to scab disease
(with permission Benson, et al. 2002. Plant Health Progress doi:10.1094/PHP-2002-0212-01-RV).
The most important root disease affecting poinsettia is Pythium root rot caused by several species of Pythium the most common being P. aphanidermatum, but P. irregulare, P. cryptoirregulare and P. ultimum also cause loss. The fungus-like Pythium survives between crops in infected plant material from previous crops whether they are poinsettia or not. Without thorough sanitation between crops Pythium can be re-introduced to the new poinsettia crop by infested crop debris or through the irrigation system. The most common symptom of Pythium root rot is stunting of the plant as it fails to keep pace with the growth of healthy plants (Fig. 11). 
Fig. 11. Stunting of poinsettia plants caused by Pythium root rot during finishing.
 Note healthy plant in foreground compared to stunted, disease plants scattered throughout.
(Photo Mike Benson)
Under severe disease pressure, the foliage of plants with Pythium root rot develops wilt symptoms and does not recover with irrigation. Affected roots are discolored (Fig. 12). This disease can attack the crop at any time from propagation through finishing. Pythium root rot occurs in greenhouses regardless of location as some Pythium species are aggressive at low temperatures and others at high temperatures. Overwatering favors Pythium root rot. Fungicide drenches are commonly used to prevent the disease.
Fig.  12. Pythium root rot of poinsettia on a newly-transplanted rooted cutting. 
Wilt symptoms (left) and close up of discolored roots with root rot from same plant (right).
(Photo Mike Benson)
Phytophthora root rot caused by P. drechsleri and P. nicotianae also can attack poinsettia during the finishing stage resulting in unsalable plants. Phytophthora is fungal-like pathogen similar to Pythium. Symptoms are the same, as well. Unlike Pythium, however, these Phytophthora pathogens can also splash onto poinsettia foliage causing a blight disease. Like Pythium root rot, overwatering favors this disease too and fungicides are commonly used to prevent the disease.

For a detailed history of the poinsettia and poinsettia diseases click here

Post prepared by Mike Benson