You may not know it, but you’ve probably seen downy mildew on several plants in your garden. The symptoms can be different for each type of plant, but the first thing that most people notice is angled dead areas on the tops of leaves. Closer inspection reveals gray, blue, white, or lavender fuzzy areas on the underside of the leaf. That’s downy mildew.
Most of us are familiar with the fuzzy white spots on leaves and stems that indicate powdery mildew. Powdery mildew is a fungal disease. The white areas we see are colonies of tiny fungi. Until recently, scientists thought that downy mildews were simply a different breed of fungi. Now we know that downy mildews are actually a whole new collection of tiny algae-like microbes (oomycetes) that parasitize vascular plants to complete their life cycle (obligate parasites or holoparasites).
Figuring out if your plants are infested with powdery or downy mildew is important because the treatments are different.
Downy mildew symptoms
As downy mildew sets up household on your plants, you may not notice those gray, white, blue, or lavender fuzzy areas (sporulations) that eventually turn gray or black, or threadlike growths (mycelium) on lower leaf surfaces. Only after the lower leaf tissue is dissolved and absorbed by the downy mildew organisms will it become obvious, as the upper leaf surfaces turn yellow and die. These leaf lesions commonly have angular shapes that stop at leaf veins.
Some varieties of downy mildew can also grow inside your plants, leaving black streaks visible in stems and flowers. Other downy mildew symptoms are mistaken for gray mold (Botrytis). Remember, downy mildew isn’t a single life form. There are dozens of downy mildews. Another issue with downy mildews is that each host plant species may show different symptoms. In fact, sometimes the symptoms on different cultivars of the same species look very different. The only consistency is the fuzzy areas on the underside of leaves and discolored upper surfaces.
I’m sure there are some vascular plants that are not impacted by downy mildew, but I don’t know what they are. Downy mildews have evolved in tandem with countless host plants, pushing the evolutionary envelope ever forward. Here is just a small sample of the downy mildews you may encounter, and their host plants (and don't let the Latin scare you!):
Researchers believe that some species of downy mildew, especially the one that attacks curcurbits, actually follow ripening crops northward every growing season. Most of these microorganisms cannot handle the cold, though some overwinter in leaf litter, soil, or other debris.
Downy mildew control
Unlike true fungi, which cannot swim in the water that collects on leaves, downy mildews can and will. This means that the longer your plants’ leaves are wet, the more likely they are to become infested. Wet morning leaves provide the perfect growth medium, while dry, warmer afternoons allow spores to catch a ride to nearby plants on the slightest breeze. Because of this, sanitation and air flow are your best friends when battling or preventing downy mildews. These microorganisms prefer cool, damp conditions. When temperatures are between 50-75oF and relative humidity is above 85% (welcome to California winter), these microorganisms start reproducing like crazy. These tips can help reduce the likelihood of downy mildews in your garden and landscape:
Plants affected by downy mildew should not be eaten. I don’t know if it’s dangerous or not, but the pros say the flavor is altered and unmarketable. Doesn’t sound very good, does it?
Do any of your garden plants show signs of downy mildew?
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!