From 1845 through 1852, over one million residents of Ireland starved to death, and another two million were forced to emigrate elsewhere, all because of potato blight. Before you lose your crop to potato blight, let’s learn more about this tiny water mold.
In the world of scientific classification, water molds are a type of mostly land dwelling organisms called oomycetes. Oomycetes fall between fungi and algae. These pathogens attack stems, roots, and tubers, and frequently kill host plants. Common water mold diseases include phytophthora tentaculata, crown rot, damping off disease, sudden oak death, and potato blight. Potato blight, also known as late blight, is caused by a specific oomycete called Phytophthora infestans. The word phytophthora means ‘plant killer’, and rightfully so.
The Great Potato Famine
The pathogen responsible for potato blight was first identified in 1843, in New York and Philadelphia. Wind then spread the spores throughout neighboring regions. Since potatoes weren’t found in North America until the 1500s, and then not grown regularly until the 1700s, potato blight wasn’t seen as a serious threat to anyone. Then, when seed potatoes were sent to Belgium in 1845, all hell broke loose for potato farmers across Europe. Ireland was hit the hardest in what became known as the Great Famine, or the Great Starvation. Since monoculture of a single potato species was common practice at the time, it wasn’t difficult for this disease to take hold.
Potato blight lifecycle
The potato blight pathogen prefers cool, moist environments, which Ireland has in abundance. Spores are produced 54°F to 65°F, while lesions develop when temperatures are between 64°F and 75°F. And it takes surprisingly little moisture to create a water mold habitat. Morning dew on a leaf is all it takes, though more water is preferable. These pathogens can also attack other members of the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, though another disease, called early blight (Alternaria solani) is often the culprit on tomatoes.
Water mold reproduction is odd. [Remember, oomycetes fall somewhere between algae and fungi.] Water mold reproduction starts with an asexual phase during which branching structures, called hypha, grow, followed by spore development. Then, the receptacle where spores develop, called sporangia, begin to germinate, much the way pollen granules germinate in fertilization. Then, our tiny water mold grows more hypha, and the process continues. Sexual reproduction occurs when two mating types meet.
Symptoms of potato blight
Potato blight symptoms start out as small, dark green, irregularly shaped, water-soaked spots on leaves, stems, petioles, and tubers. These spots have a yellowish halo. These lesions expand rapidly when moisture is present, turning purplish brown. Grayish white fuzz can also be seen on the underside of leaves as spores develop.
A special group of genetically modified potatoes has been developed with a resistance to potato blight. These cisgenic potatoes appear unable to catch the disease. If you prefer not growing genetically modified plants, there are other ways to prevent potato blight from taking hold.
How to prevent potato blight
Fixed copper sprays are the best preventative measures against potato blight. In fact, during WWII, when copper was being used to make artillery shells, farmers faced new threats from potato blight because they were unable to spray their fields.
Potato blight can find its way into your potato bed through contaminated potatoes, visitors and materials which have come from areas infested with the pathogen, and by rain or irrigation water splashing from contaminated plants to healthy plants. These are excellent reasons for quarantining new plants and avoiding the use of grocery store produce as a plant source. [Just because a plant is healthy enough to eat now does not mean it isn’t carrying diseases that may stay in your soil for years.]
Excess moisture should be avoided in areas susceptible to potato blight. This means allowing the soil to dry out between waterings, pruning for good air flow, and adding organic material to the soil to improve drainage.
A healthy potato bed is a thing of beauty. Let’s keep it that way!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!