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Holly leaf blight

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last updated Apr 2, 2013
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Holly blight in hedges causes 'arches' of defoliation. Image: RHS, Horticultural Science

Holly leaf blight is a disease that causes leaf fall and twig die-back in several holly species.

What is holly leaf blight? Back to top

Holly leaf blight is an infection of the leaves and stems of holly by a fungus-like micro-organism, Phytophthora ilicis. It has become an increasingly frequent problem in the past 10 years. Damage is often first seen in winter; fresh outbreaks of the disease tend to follow a period of wet, cool weather.

This is a disease specific to holly, although some species show resistance. See the section on Control below for more information.

Symptoms Back to top

You may see the following symptoms:

  • On leaves: Black blotches appear, often quite difficult to see against the dark green glossy colour. Affected leaves drop prematurely
  • On stems: Smaller stems can be attacked, blackening in the affected areas
  • In hedges, the disease often causes ‘arches’ of defoliation, where the damaged area is widest near the ground

The leaf blotching caused by the pest holly leaf miner can sometimes be mistaken for holly leaf blight.

Control Back to top

Non-chemical control

Cut out infected areas as soon as they are detected, collect all fallen infected leaves and burn or remove to land fill.

Take great care not to buy infected plants from nurseries. Check if suppliers are aware of the disease, whether they have experienced outbreaks, and whether they use fungicides that suppress Phytophthora but do not kill it.

As a precaution, keep new hollies separate from others in the garden and under close observation for one or two months, to ensure they are really disease-free, before planting in their final position.

Information from the USA suggests the following Ilex species show resistance:  Ilex cassineI. cassine  var. angustifolia, I. ciliospinosa, I. crenata cvs. ‘Convexa’ and ‘Hetzii’ and var. paludosa, I. glabra, I. intricata, I. latifolia, I. perado, I. pernyi, I. sugerokii and I. vomitaria.

In the UK, the disease affects primarily I. aquifolium, I. crenata, I. × altaclarensis, I. dipyrena and I. kingiana and has been found on I. colchica, I. pernyi var. veitchii and some clones of I. apaca.

Chemical control

There are no effective fungicides approved for use by gardeners.

Biology Back to top

The causal organism, Phytophthora ilicis, is believed to originate in northern America where it was first described and to have been introduced accidentally to the UK and northern Europe, probably during the last century. It was first recorded in the UK in 1989 and was rarely recorded at that time, but there has been an upsurge in the past ten years for unknown reasons. Like other Phytophthora species, P. ilicis is a micro-organism more closely related to the algae than the true fungi.

It releases its infective spores into water, therefore wet conditions are required for infection. It is carried in run-off water, wind-blown rain, probably in contaminated soil and possibly by birds and other animals. It has also been detected in infected nursery stock.

In hedges, patches of infection are ‘arch shaped’, widest close to the soil, suggesting that infection may occur when spores are splashed upwards. Wounds in the leaves, which occur naturally from holly spines, appear to be necessary for the spores to gain entrance. The pathogen probably survives the hotter, drier seasons as resting spores in infected leaves and stems, breaking out in cooler wetter conditions, but many details of the biology of this organism remain uncertain.

Quick facts

Common name Holly leaf blight
Scientific name Phytophthora ilicis
Plants affected Ilex spp. (holly)
Main symptoms Black blotches on leaves, die-back of stems
Caused by Fungus-like organism
Timing Winter, particularly after cool wet weather
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