Don’t Get Burned by Fire Blight, Disease Management Begins Now

Fire blight is an important disease of apple, crabapple, pear, and flowering pear in Kentucky. Symptoms are often not observed until late spring or early summer; however, initial infections occur at bloom. The pathogen survives winter in dead, dying, and diseased wood and in cankers. Removal of these pathogen sources can reduce spread of fire blight and should be completed in late winter while the pathogen is dormant.

Fire Blight Facts

  • Early symptoms include wilt of flower cluster and blossom death (Figure 1). Disease spreads to shoots or branches where tips wilt and rapidly die (blight) to form a characteristic ‘shepherd’s crook’ (Figure 2). Dark brown, sunken cankers (stem lesions) develop and expand to girdle branches, resulting in branch death (Figure 3).
  • Potential hosts include apples, pears, and several landscape woody ornamentals in the rose family.
  • Primary infection occurs at bloom and may continue through petal fall or until shoot elongation ends.
  • Rainy conditions, periods of high humidity, and temperatures between 65°F and 70°F favor disease development.
  • Caused by the bacteria Erwinia amylovora.
  • Bacterial cells overwinter in dead, dying, and diseased wood.

Figure 1: Apple flower clusters infected with fire blight. (Photo: Nicole Gauthier, UK)

Figure 2: Rapid shoot death from fire blight may result in a ‘shepherd’s crook’ appearance. (Photo: Nicole Gauthier, UK)

Figure 3: Dark brown, shrunken cankers develop and expand to girdle branches. (Photo: Nicole Gauthier, UK)

Management Options

  • Select varieties that are tolerant or resistant to fire blight.
  • Maintain plant health with proper nutrition and irrigation practices.
  • Prune to increase air flow through the plant canopy.
  • Remove infected plant tissues during winter when plants and pathogens are dormant. Do not prune when trees are wet. Burn, bury, or otherwise dispose of diseased material.
  • Bactericides should be applied preventatively. Once infection occurs, sprays are not effective. Homeowners can apply copper during dormancy to reduce overwintering inoculum. Additional bactericides available for commercial growers are presented in the Commercial Fruit Pest Management Guide (ID-232). Always follow label directions when utilizing bactericides.
  • Fire blight risk throughout the season can be determined by the disease development models available through the UK Ag Weather Center website.

Additional Information

  • Fire Blight (PPFS-FR-T-12)
  • Fruit, Orchard, and Vineyard Sanitation (PPFS-GEN-05)
  • Backyard Apple Disease Management Using Cultural Practices (with Low Spray, No Spray & Organic Options) (PPFS-FR-T-21)
  • Simplified Backyard Apple Spray Guides (PPFS-FR-T-18)
  • Disease and Insect Control Programs for Homegrown Fruit in Kentucky including Organic Alternatives (ID-21)
  • Commercial Midwest Fruit Pest Management Guide (ID232)

Kim Leonberger, Plant Pathology Extension Associate and Nicole Gauthier, Plant Pathology Extension Specialist

Posted in Fruit