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Bacterial canker

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last updated Mar 26, 2014
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Bacterial canker. Image: RHS, Horticultural Science

Bacterial canker is a disease of the stems and leaves of Prunus, especially plums and cherries, but also apricots, peaches and ornamental Prunus species. It causes sunken patches of dead bark and small holes in leaves, called ‘shothole’.

What is bacterial canker? Back to top

Bacterial canker is a disease caused by two closely related species of bacteria that infect the stems and leaves of plums, cherries and related Prunus species. It is one of the few important plant diseases caused by bacteria in the UK.

Cankers begin to form in mid-spring and soon afterwards shoots may die back. Shotholes appear on foliage from early summer.

Symptoms Back to top

You may see the following symptoms:

  • On stems and spurs: Sunken, dead areas of bark develop in spring and early summer, often accompanied by a gummy ooze. If the infection spreads all round the branch it will die rapidly
  • On leaves: Small brown spots appear which are often round and fall out later to leave holes – as if the leaf had been hit by shotgun pellets, leading to the popular name of ‘shothole’

Control Back to top

Non-chemical control

Where possible, carry out all pruning in July or August when tissues are most resistant. This is also the best time to prune in order to minimise the risk of infection by spores of the fungus causing silver leaf disease. Cut out all cankered areas, pruning back to healthy wood and paint promptly with a wound paint to protect the wound from re-infection. Burn or landfill the prunings.

The cherries ‘Merton Glory’, ‘Merton Premier’, ‘Merla’ and ‘Merpet’ and the plums ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’ and ‘Warwickshire Drooper’ have some resistance.

Chemical control

Copper-based fungicides (Fruit and Vegetable Disease Control and Bordeaux Mixture) are effective against bacterial disease and are permitted for bacterial canker control on plums and cherries. Make three applications from late summer into mid autumn. These products are not approved for use against bacterial canker on peaches, but the use of these products to control leaf curl disease on peach will give some incidental protection.

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

Biology Back to top

The bacteria Pseudomonas syringae pv. morsprunorum and P. s. pv. syringae are members of a large genus of plant-pathogenic bacteria. Several others occur in the UK but are relatively unimportant and, generally speaking, bacterial diseases of plants are more important in warmer climates. However, bacterial canker of Prunus is a serious disease and although more often confined to smaller branches, can sometimes kill larger branches or whole trees.

The species P. syringae exists as a large number of pathovars, (abbreviated to pv.), so-called because although all look the same, they have different, specific hosts. The pathovar morsprunorum is restricted to Prunus species, pv. syringae has a much wider host range, but both cause similar symptoms on Prunus.

The bacteria exist as surface dwellers (epiphytes) on leaves, and during wet weather in spring or early summer, and can enter through the leaf pores (stomata), causing infections to develop in the young leaves. As the leaf matures these infections cease to expand and are revealed as small patches of dead tissue. As the leaf expands fully, the live tissues pull away from the dead patch, which drops out, leaving a ‘shothole’.

Cankers develop when the bacterial cells gain entry through wounds or leaf scars at the time of leaf fall. Cankers remain more or less dormant through summer, when tissues are resistant, and during autumn and winter when temperatures are low. In spring, the infections spread rapidly, killing the bark.

Quick facts

Common name Bacterial canker
Scientific name Pseudomonas syringae pv. morsprunorum and P. s. pv. syringae
Plants affected Prunus species
Main symptoms Sunken, dead patches of bark and small holes in leaves
Caused by Bacteria
Timing Cankers form in mid-spring, shotholes on foliage from early summer
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