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Potato blackleg

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last updated Mar 31, 2014
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Healthy potato (left) and one infected with potato blackleg (right). Image: RHS, Horticultural Science

Potato blackleg is a common bacterial disease of potatoes, which causes black rotting at the stem base. Initial infections cause stunted growth and yellowing stems.

What is potato blackleg? Back to top

Blackleg is a disease caused by the bacterium Pectobacterium atrosepticum. It is one of the earliest potato diseases to appear, you may see symptoms as early as June, especially in wet years.

This disease only infects potatoes.

Symptoms Back to top

You may see the following symptoms:

  • As early as June, the stems of potato plants appear stunted and pale green or yellow
  • Leaves at the top of affected stems may be small, stiff and have margins curled inwards
  • At ground level, these affected stems appear black and rotted
  • If tubers form, the flesh may be grey or brown and rotten
Potato blackleg. Image: RHS, Horticultural Science

At ground level, affected stems appear black and rotted.

Control Back to top

Non-chemical control

There is a number of control measures that do not require chemicals:

  • The most important control measure is prompt removal and destruction of infected plants as soon as symptoms are noticed and before the disease has time to spread
  • Commercially produced seed has very low (but not zero) levels of infection. Gardeners who save their own seed should be particularly careful that it is uninfected. Dry storage of seed or ware potatoes will minimise the risk of spread in storage
  • The disease thirves in warm, damp conditions so improve poorly drained sites
  • Try to lift crops during dry weather
  • Rotation is important, since the bacteria may survive over winter in ground where potatoes were previously grown, albeit at a low level. Rotation also reduces the risk of infection arising from infected volunteer potatoes
  • Choose resistant cultivars. The British Potato Council has produced the British Potato Variety Database which lists resistant varieties including ‘Charlotte’, ‘Pixie’, ‘Saxon’ and ‘Vales Sovereign’.  Visit The British Potato Variety Database for more information

Chemical control

There are no chemical controls available to gardeners for blackleg.

Biology Back to top

Blackleg is caused by the bacterium Pectobacterium atrosepticum (previously known as Erwinia carotovora pv. atroseptica). It is one of the few important plant diseases caused by bacteria in the UK.

This disease normally comes into gardens (or allotments) via infected seed potatoes. Infected plants are removed from commercial seed crops, but a small number of infected tubers escape detection and seed lots will usually contain a few of these. These infections in the seed tubers are impossible to detect.

If the infected plants that grow from these are not removed from the crop promptly, the disease will spread through the soil to infect new plants. The bacteria survive over winter principally in infected volunteer tubers and potato plant debris. They also survive at low levels in the root zone of some weeds. The bacteria may also be carried through the crop by insects or on contaminated soil.

However, in gardens it is infected seed potatoes that are the most important source.

Quick facts

Common name Potato blackleg
Scientific name Pectobacterium atrosepticum
Plants affected Potatoes
Main symptoms Yellowing stems, stunted growth and black rot at stem bases
Caused by Bacteria
Timing June onwards