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Fireblight

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last updated Mar 31, 2014
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Fireblight infection. Image: RHS, Horticultural Science

Fireblight is a bacterial disease which kills the shoots of apples and pears and their ornamental relatives, giving the plant the appearance of having been scorched by fire.

What is fireblight? Back to top

Fireblight is a disease caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora. Expect to see damage from late spring until autumn.

Fireblight infects only those members of the Rosaceae in the sub-family Pomoideae; apples, pears and related ornamentals including Cotoneaster, Sorbus, Crataegus (hawthorn), Photinia (syn. Stransvaesia) and Pyracantha. Fireblight does not infect stone fruits, such as plums, cherriespeaches and nectarines (Prunus spp.).

Symptoms Back to top

You may see the following symptoms:

  • Blossoms wilt and die at flowering time
  • A slimy white liquid may exude from infections in wet weather
  • Shoots shrivel and die as the infection spreads down the inner bark
  • During the short period of active spread, the outer wood is stained a foxy brown colour when the infected bark is peeled back
  • Cankers (areas of dead, sunken bark) on branches, especially where infected shoots join larger branches
Bark infected by fireblight. Image: RHS, Horticultural Science

The outer wood of infected plants are stained a foxy brown colour when the bark is peeled back.

Control Back to top

Non-chemical control

Prune out and burn infections promptly, peeling back the bark to reveal the brown staining and cutting back 30cm (1ft) to healthy wood in smaller branches, 60cm (2ft) in larger ones. Wipe pruning tools with disinfectant (Jeyes Fluid or methylated spirit) between cuts to avoid spreading the bacteria. Remove secondary, late blossoms before they open.

Hawthorn hedges can be a source of infection and should probably be avoided by commercial fruit growers, but have many merits and should not be rejected by gardeners on this basis.

The most susceptible fruit was the pear ‘Laxtons Superb’, but this is no longer grown or offered for sale. The ‘Saphyr’ range of Pyracantha cultivars are resistant.

Chemical control

There are no specific chemical controls for fireblight, but applications of copper fungicide for control of apple canker may give some incidental control.

Download

Fungicides for gardeners (Adobe Acrobat pdf document outlining fungicides available to gardeners)

Biology Back to top

The bacterium is native to North America and was accidentally introduced into the UK in 1957. It was formerly a notifiable disease but this is no longer the case in mainland UK; however it is not yet established in northern or southern Ireland, the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands, where any suspected outbreaks should be reported to the Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate of Defra, or other appropriate authorities.

The bacteria overwinter in bark cankers. In warm, wet and windy weather in spring, bacteria ooze out of the cankers. Infections occur when the bacterium gains entry to the inner bark, usually via the blossoms, and it is spread by wind-blown rain and also by insects including bees.

Under favourable conditions the infections spread rapidly down the inner bark at up to 5cm (2in) per day, staining the cambium a foxy brown colour. Severely attacked trees appear to have been scorched by fire. Most years in the UK are too cold at blossom time for infections to occur and the disease is usually of relatively minor importance. A particular risk of infection occurs when trees produce a secondary, small flush of blossom later in the season when conditions are warmer.

Quick facts

Common name Fireblight
Scientific name Erwinia amylovora
Plants affected Apples, pears and related ornamentals
Main symptoms Blossoms wilt, slime oozing from infections, cankers
Caused by Bacterium
Timing Late spring until autumn
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