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Fire blight on pear trees

Shephard’s crook, a typical symptom of fireblight

Fire blight, caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora, is a common and frequently destructive disease of pome fruit trees and related plants. The first symptoms of fire blight occur in early spring, when temperatures are above 60 °F and the weather is rainy or humid. Infected flowers turn black and die. The disease moves down the branch, resulting in death of young twigs, which blacken and curl over, giving the appearance of a “shepherd’s crook.” Leaves on affected branches wilt, blacken and remain attached to the plant, giving it a fire-scorched appearance. Slightly sunken areas, called cankers, appear on branches and the main stem. Many parts of the plant can be affected including blossoms, stems, leaves and fruit. During wet spring weather you may notice a milky-like, sticky liquid oozing from infected plant parts. Insects and rain can spread the disease.

Disease Management

During spring and summer, prune out infected branches 8 inches below the damage. Avoid pruning when the plants are wet. Dip pruning tools in 70 percent isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) or 10 percent bleach solution (1 part bleach to 9 parts water solution) between each cut. Wash and oil shears when you are finished. These practices avoid spreading the pathogen.

Avoid heavy nitrogen fertilization, especially in summer, when succulent growth is most susceptible to fireblight infection. Avoid splashing water. Chemical control is not always effective and needs to be applied preventively. Therefore, in years when warm, humid, wet weather coincides with flowering and leaf emergence, spray plants with a fungicide containing basic copper sulfate (Kocide) or an antibiotic (Agrimycin) to reduce infection. Applications of Agrimycin need to begin at the start of blooming and continue every 3-4 days during the bloom period. Application of Kocide should begin at bloom and continue every 7 days during bloom. Re-application following rain may be needed.