Biology Fire Blight on Pears

(Text based on P.W. Steiner, T. van der Zwet, and A. R. Biggs).


Overwintering cankers harbouring the fire blight pathogen are often clearly visible on trunks and large limbs as slightly to deeply depressed areas of discoloured bark, which are sometimes cracked about the margins. The largest number of cankers, however, are much smaller and not so easily distinguished. These occur on small limbs where blossom or shoot infections occurred the previous year and often around cuts made to remove blighted limbs. Since many of these cankers are established later in the season, they are not often strongly depressed and seldom show bark cracks at their margins. Also, they are often quite small, extending less than 2.5 cm, with reddish to purple bark that may be covered with tiny black fungus fruiting bodies (most notably Botryosphaeria obtusa, the black rot pathogen of apple).

Blossom blight symptoms most often appear within one to two weeks after bloom and usually involve the entire blossom cluster, which wilts and dies, turning brown on apple and quite black on pear. When weather is favourable for pathogen development, globules of bacterial ooze can be seen on the blossoms. The spur bearing the blossom cluster also dies and the infection may spread into and kill portions of the supporting limb. The tips of young infected shoots wilt, forming a very typical "shepherd's crook" symptom. Older shoots that become infected after they develop about 20 leaves may not show this curling symptom at the tip. As the infection spreads down the shoot axis, the leaves first show dark streaks in the mid veins, then wilt and turn brown, remaining tightly attached to the shoot throughout the season. As with blossom infections, the pathogen often invades and kills a portion of the limb supporting the infected shoot. The first symptom on water sprouts and shoots that are invaded systemically from nearby active cankers is the development of a yellow to orange discolouration of the shoot tip before wilting occurs. In addition, the petioles and mid veins of the basal leaves on such sprouts usually become necrotic before those at the shoot tip.

Depending on the cultivar and its stage of development at the time infection occurs, a single blossom or shoot infection can result in the death of an entire limb, and where the central leader or trunk of the tree is invaded, a major portion of the tree can be killed in just one season. In general, infections of any type that occur between petal fall and terminal bud set usually lead to the greatest limb and tree loss. In addition, heavily structured trees tend to suffer less severe limb loss than those trained to weaker systems for high productivity. Where highly susceptible apple rootstocks (M.26, M.9) become infected, much of the scion trunk and major limbs above the graft union very typically remain symptomless, while a distinct dark brown canker develops around the rootstock. As this rootstock canker girdles the tree, the upper portion shows symptoms of general decline (poor foliage colour, weak growth) by mid to late season. In some instances, the foliage of trees affected by rootstock blight develop early fall red color in late August to early September, not unlike that often associated with collar rot disease caused by a soil borne fungus. Some trees with rootstock infections may not show decline symptoms until the following spring, at which time cankers can be seen extending upward into the lower trunk.

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Disease Cycle

The bacterial pathogen causing fire blight overwinters almost exclusively in cankers on limbs infected the previous season. The largest number of cankers and, hence, those most important in contributing inoculum, occur on limbs smaller than 38 mm in diameter, especially around cuts made the previous year to remove blighted limbs. During the early spring, in response to warmer temperatures and rapid bud development, the bacteria at canker margins begin multiplying rapidly and produce a thick yellowish to white ooze that is elaborated onto the bark surface up to several weeks before the bloom period. Many insect species (predominantly flies) are attracted to the ooze, and subsequently disperse the bacteria throughout the orchard. Once the first few open blossoms are colonized by the bacteria, pollinating insects rapidly move the pathogen to other flowers, initiating more blossom blight. These colonized flowers are subject to infection within minutes after any wetting event caused by rain or heavy dew when the average daily temperatures are equal to or greater than 16 °C while the flower petals are intact (flower receptacles and young fruits are resistant after petal fall). Once blossom infections occur, early symptoms can be expected with the accumulation of at least 57 degree days (DD) greater than 13 °C which, depending upon daily temperatures, may require 5 to 30 calendar days.

With the appearance of blossom blight symptoms, the number and distribution of inoculum sources in the orchard increase greatly. Inoculum from these sources is further spread by wind, rain, and many casual insect visitors to young shoot tips, increasing the likelihood for an outbreak of shoot blight. Recent research conducted in Pennsylvania indicates that aphid feeding does not contribute to shoot blight. More research is needed to determine whether or not leafhopper's play a role in the incidence of shoot blight. Most shoot tip infections occur between the time that the shoots have about nine to ten leaves and terminal bud set, when sources of inoculum and insect vectors are available, and daily temperatures average 16 °C or more.

In years when blossom infections do not occur, the primary sources of inoculum for the shoot blight phase are the overwintering cankers and, in particular, young water sprouts near these cankers, which become infected as the bacteria move into them systemically from the canker margins. Such systemic shoot infections, called canker blight, are apparently initiated about 111 DD greater than 13 °C after green tip, although visible symptoms may not be apparent until the accumulation of at least 157 DD greater than 13 °C after green tip. In the absence of blossom infections, the development of shoot blight infections is often localized around areas with overwintering cankers.

Although mature shoot and limb tissues are generally resistant to infection by E. amylovora, injuries caused by hail, late frosts of -2 °C or lower, and high winds that damage the foliage can create a trauma blight situation in which the normal defence mechanisms in mature tissues are breached and infections occur. Instances of trauma blight are known to occur even on normally resistant cultivars like 'Delicious'.

Rootstock blight, yet another phase of fire blight, has been recognized recently and is associated primarily with the highly susceptible M.26, M.9 and Mark rootstocks. On these trees, just a few blossom or shoot infections on the scion cultivar can supply bacteria that then move systemically into the rootstock where a canker often, but not always, develops and eventually girdles the tree. Trees affected by rootstock blight generally show symptoms of decline and early death by mid to late season, but may not be apparent until the following spring.

(c) Dr. Heinrich Denzer, Pessl Instruments GmbH, Weiz, 2007