Monday, March 2, 2015

The Plague of Powdery Mildew





Powdery mildew (PM) is a menace to many gardeners. The disease will turn large zucchini leaves white and later brown. A whitish cast will appear on many common garden plants such as tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, mustard, peas, and collards. Infected leaves often turn yellow to brown and may shrivel making the plant unproductive and eventually die.


The white fungal growth can develop both on the upper and the lower surfaces of the leaf, and sometimes, on flowers and fruit. The cottony like threads of this fungus travel along the surface of the leaf, occasionally sending “roots” down into the leaf tissue in order to obtain nutrients.


Many different types of powdery mildew fungi are host specific. This means that one particular mildew fungus will only infect those plants in a particular genus or family; the PM on the beans will not attack papaya, and the PM on mangoes will not attack tomatoes. 

The fungus likes temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees F and is sensitive to temperatures above 90. Cool days and warm nights favor the disease. Spores of the pathogen are dispersed readily by wind. Even though this disease flourishes with high humidity, wet leaves can actually inhibit germination of the fungal spores, thus preventing infection. Because of this, the disease should be minimized during periods of heavy rainfall. Also during this time, the numerous spores that are on the leaves will be washed away.

Control Stopping powdery mildew in its earliest stages of development provides the best control. This can be done by sanitation: remove and destroy infected parts of the plant. Other measures of control are as follows: plant in the sunniest locations, provide good air circulation through pruning, and avoid excessive applications of fertilizer.

Fortunately there are a number of relatively safe and effective materials to use against this fungus - wettable sulfur, horticultural oils, including neem, and Kaligreen (potassium bicarbonate a relative of baking soda). Serenade is a bacterium and is considered a biological fungicide. It helps to prevent the powdery mildew from infecting the plant. Beware: Cucurbits (melon, squash, cucumbers) can be sensitive to sulfur.  Do not apply when the temperature is near or over 90 degrees and do not apply within 2 weeks of an oil spray. Use these materials in the earliest stages of disease development for best results.  

Before spraying, it would help to remove the leaves that are heavily infested.  Do not dispose of them on the ground since they are loaded with fungal spores. Powdery mildews can attack healthy plants; but older plants, less vigorous plants and those that are stressed are more susceptible to infection.  
Most important, choose plant varieties (vegetables, fruit trees and ornamentals) which are tolerant or resistant to the powdery mildew fungus. For more information about seeds from locally developed vegetable varieties, contact the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa: http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/seed/seeds.asp. Or, contact your local university cooperative extension office. 

Note: Some of the resistant varieties will exhibit powdery mildew symptoms, but the disease is less severe. 

Photos: Cornell University, Colorado State University and USDA