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Onion white rot

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last updated Apr 2, 2013
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Onion white rot. Image: RHS, Horticultural Science

White rot is a serious fungal disease of onions, garlic and leeks causing wilting and yellowing foliage. It may persist in the soil for many years.

What is onion white rot? Back to top

White rot is a serious disease of the alliums, especially bulb onions, garlic and leeks, caused by the soil-borne fungus Sclerotium cepivorum which can persist in the soil for many years. Look for symptoms from mid-summer until early autumn.

Symptoms Back to top

You may see the following symptoms:

  • Above ground, the first symptom is yellowing and wilting of the foliage, especially in dry weather
  • Under wetter conditions the plants may not wilt, but will become loose in the soil
  • Below ground, the pathogen rots the roots and then invades the bulb
  • White fluffy fungus growth appears on the base of the bulb and later this becomes covered in small, round, black structures
Onion white rot. Image: RHS, Horticultural Science

White fluffy fungus growth appears on the base of the bulb.

Control Back to top

Non-chemical control

Sclerotium cepivorum is effectively impossible to eliminate once it has been introduced and the long survival period makes crop rotation impractical. It is therefore extremely important to avoid introduction to previously clean sites. It is transported in contaminated soil, for example on tools or on muddy footwear. Take particular care in areas where cross contamination can occur easily, for example on allotments.

Chemical control

There are no chemical treatments against this disease or for soil sterilisation available to UK gardeners.

As mentioned, the sclerotia are stimulated to germinate by volatile compounds emitted by onions. Therefore the possibility exists of using the compounds as a chemical soil treatment to trick the sclerotia to germinate and then die because of lack of suitable plants to infect. This has been under discussion for many years, but has not translated into the availability of any products on the UK amateur market.

Biology Back to top

Sclerotium cepivorum is an unusual fungus in that it does not produce any spores of importance to the normal life cycle. It exists in the soil as round black resting structures (sclerotia) about 0.5mm (1/32in) diameter which remain dormant so long as no members of the onion family are grown. Sclerotia can detect certain volatile chemicals unique to alliums and when these are sensed the sclerotia germinate, producing fungal growth which invades the roots directly. Fresh sclerotia are then formed on the rotting bulbs and recontaminate the soil.

Sclerotia can remain in the soil for at least 15 years, though they will not always live this long. They can only germinate once and the fungus will then die out if it can not infect. Both sclerotia germination and fungal growth are inhibited above 20ºC (68ºF), so in the UK the problem is more severe in cool, wet summers; in warmer climates the disease is only a problem over the winter months.

Quick facts

Common name Onion white rot
Scientific name Sclerotium cepivorum
Plants affected Onions, garlic, leeks and other alliums
Main symptoms Yellow and wilting foliage
Caused by Fungus
Timing Mid-summer until early autumn