Over the last few years, there has been a great deal of concern in Alberta surrounding a serious disease called Late blight that affects mainly potatoes and tomatoes. This disease is caused by a fungal pathogen called Phytophthora infestans. The favourable conditions for disease development, combined with the presence of the pathogen, have resulted in multiple outbreaks of Late blight in commercial, market garden and urban potato and tomato crops throughout parts of Alberta. A number of different strains of the pathogen have been identified in different years, each being more or less aggressive on either potatoes or tomatoes. For 2014, this disease continues to be a risk for all Solanaceous crops (potato/tomato family) grown in Alberta.
About the Disease
When the pathogen is present and weather conditions are favourable for disease development, commercial potato and market garden crops are at risk from Late blight, as are all other plantings of potatoes and tomatoes. There is also a risk of spread into greenhouse tomato operations. The risk of introduction comes from either infected transplant material (tomatoes or other host crops) or infected seed potato stock (either imported or carried over). During the season, if spore loads build up, there is a risk of introduction of the pathogen via wind-blown/storm carried transfer.
Late blight is a serious plant disease caused by the fungus-like microorganism, Phytophthora infestans, and is found in most potato and vegetable-growing areas of Canada, although historically it does not occur every year on the Prairies. Late blight is most damaging on tomatoes and potatoes, but may also affect eggplants, peppers, petunias and some related Solanaceous weeds, such as nightshade and wild tomato. Late blight is an aggressive disease that, if left unchecked, can cause significant and rapid crop losses in gardens, greenhouses, fields and in controlled environment storages, e.g. potato bins.
Symptoms & Disease Spread
Initial symptoms of Late blight are typically noted on older leaves, appearing as dark, water-soaked areas (lesions), sometimes with yellow edges, that move in from leaf tips/margins, becoming brown and brittle within a couple days. Late blight lesions are not contained by the leaf veins, as they are with another common foliar disease called early blight (caused by the fungus Alternaria solani. Lesions may also develop on plant stems and on potato tubers and tomato fruit. A small amount of sporulation (observed as white, fluffy growth on the edges of lesions) may be visible in some cases on the underside of affected leaves at the edge of lesions. Late blight develops most quickly in warm, wet/humid conditions and can spread very rapidly through plantings. Plants may be rapidly defoliated, die and yields can be significantly reduced.
Potato tubers may be infected by spores produced on the foliage which are subsequently washed into the soil. Infected tubers may have irregular, sunken lesions that are often first found around the eyes. Tomato fruit and potato tuber rot can penetrate into skin of the fruit or tubers, causing rot and discolouration of the internal tissues. The rot often has a reddish-brown colour. Late blight can spread from diseased to healthy fruit and tubers in stored tomatoes, in potato piles in storage and on seed potato pieces.
On the Prairies, Late blight does not form an overwintering spore, as this requires two different mating types, one of which is not present. Rather, the pathogen overwinters on living tissues. The disease will only survive without a living host for 5-7 days. The disease is carried forward from one season to another on infected seed potatoes, cull piles, volunteer potatoes or living host plants (e.g. tomato transplants).
In-season spread is by spores (sporangia) produced on infected tissues (infected transplants, volunteers, weeds and diseased crop debris). Spores spread within the fields by rain or water splash. Sporangia may also move short distances in soil water and spores may move between fields on equipment. Spores can move considerable distances on the wind
The priority for Late blight management should centre around efforts to reduce the introduction of the disease into plantings, either by avoiding overwinter survival or by monitoring for infected plant materials that might be brought in from other areas. Leaving potato cull piles or diseased materials in the open can lead to infection of healthy plants. Volunteer potato plants and Solanaceous weeds, such as nightshade and wild tomato, should be controlled.
Late blight can be managed in commercial crops using protective fungicidal sprays (with rotating chemistries), applied at regular intervals when conditions favour disease development. The use of cultural practices, such as drip or furrow irrigation and the adjustment of plant stand density, can be effective in reducing the risk or rate of disease development in alternative crops or smaller stands.
Infected plant material should be disposed of as soon as possible after detection, either by burying or freezing. If infected crop debris is composted, it should be covered with a tarp or soil until it has frozen to minimize the risk of spore survival and distribution. Killing potato tops can help to minimize tuber infection, as this encourages tuber skin set and stops top growth. Tubers can be harvested a couple of weeks after the tops are killed. Tubers should be heavily graded and culled before storage in an attempt to prevent entry of the disease into storage.
“Late blight is a community disease”
For more information on Late blight, see the following resources:
Robert Spencer / Dustin Morton
Commercial Horticulture Specialists
Ag-Info Centre – 310-FARM (3276)
Dr. Mike Harding
Plant Pathology Research Scientist – CDC South
Dr. Michele Konschuh
If you think that you might have Late blight, please contact 310-FARM (3276) for assistance with diagnosis and management
Potato Research Scientist – CDC South