Do you see spots of bleached or straw-colored areas on the leaves of your strawberries, summer squashes, or corn? Or flecks and bands of red, orange, yellow, or brown on conifer needles? Those discolorations are ozone damage, and it is called weather fleck.
Technically, it is weather fleck only when it affects tobacco plants, but we’ll use the term more broadly. So what does ozone do?
Ozone (O3) creates a barrier around the Earth, up in our stratosphere, protecting us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation but threatening us with several health problems. It is a reactive form of oxygen that forms as sunlight reacts with car and factory fumes, so it’s abundant.
Ozone triggers plants to protect themselves, reducing fruit yield and quality. As a type of air pollution, excessive ozone can reduce chlorophyll, carotenoid, and carbohydrate levels in plants while increasing ethylene gas levels. Ethylene is responsible for ripening, but excessive levels are considered air pollution.
Nearly all plants in urban areas are affected to one degree or another. It is considered the most destructive air pollutant for plants in the United States. In 2022, a study found that East Asia lost $63 billion in crops due to ozone pollution in only one year.
Symptoms of weather fleck
Bleaching, bronzing, chlorosis, mottling, stippling, tissue death, and weather fleck are common symptoms of ozone damage. Weather fleck starts as small, dark green water-soaked areas. Within hours, those lesions turn brown, then tan or white. At higher ozone concentrations, this process can occur in just two or three hours.
You might mistake weather fleck for spider mite feeding, except weather fleck symptoms are usually seen on the upper surface of mature leaves first, followed by younger and older leaves. Spider mites almost always start on the underside of leaves, trying to stay hidden.
As ozone exposure continues, damage spreads to both sides of the leaves. Mature plants are more resistant to ozone than younger plants, but those damaged areas are dead tissue. Weather fleck doesn’t look very impressive, but those tiny damaged areas can merge and form bigger problems.
Any time tissue is damaged, it becomes less able to protect itself. Plants exhibiting weather fleck are especially susceptible to Botrytis fungi. Botrytis is responsible for gray mold. These plants are also experiencing internal stresses that cause cell seepage, chemical imbalances, and other problems.
Many garden ornamentals, such as dahlia, fuchsia, lilac, marigold, and salvia are very sensitive to ozone levels. The list of edible plants highly susceptible to ozone damage is rather long.
If you live in an area with lots of ozone, you may want to focus your gardening efforts on somewhat resistant cucumbers and peppers. What else can you do?
Aside from working from home and walking to the store instead of driving, you can protect your plants by not giving them more fertilizer than necessary. Plants are most susceptible to ozone damage during periods of rapid growth.
Did you know that ozone smells a little like chlorine? I didn’t, either.
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