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Flowers, Fruits, and Frass

Local and statewide information on a variety of current topics for home gardeners and market growers.
fire blight

Fire Blight

Fire Blight

The Master Gardener plant clinics in Livingston, McLean and Woodford counties have seen high numbers of fire blight questions.

Fire blight is a bacterial infection that afflicts ornamental pears, crabapples, plum, serviceberry and apples. This disease is more evident in warm and wet seasons and looks like the tips of the branches have caught fire and retreated into a hook position called the shepherd's crook. The bark at the base of the infected twigs is sunken and cracked and forms oozing canker visited by bees.

Fire blight is spread from plant to plant by rain, wind or pruning tools. It survives the winters in cankers and branches and thrives when conditions are right. To determine the difference between bacterial blight and fire blight, a sample must be submitted to the University of Illinois Plant Clinic. Homeowners do not need to distinguish the disease because both afflictions have the same treatment.

Some tips for handling fire blight:

-- Prune dead and dying tissue during winter months when the tree is dormant. Pruning the tree now will only cause new more susceptible growth and also spread the disease around by the pruning tool. Always disinfect pruning tools with alcohol or 10 percent bleach between pruning cuts and prune 8 to 12 inches below the infected tissue.

-- Do not fertilize; doing so will only produce young, more susceptible growth.

-- Plant resistant cultivars. Newer cultivars have shown more resistance to the disease. Go to university websites or ask experts at local nurseries for recommendations.

-- Determine the health of the tree. Improper tree planting, plant placement, soil, drainage and fertility can make these species more susceptible to the disease.

-- Cull plants. If there are several apples and only one shows symptoms that worsen, remove it.

-- Most growers in warm and wet springs will put their orchards or large stands on a spray schedule as a preventative practice. Curative sprays will not always be effective once the bacteria has presented symptoms.

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