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UC: Watch for phytophthora in almonds

Wet winter, El Niño create favorable conditions for pathogens.

Mike Hsu

February 2, 2024

3 Min Read
Almond branch die-back
While infection by Phytophthora syringae typically will not kill almond trees, it can cause significant branch dieback that requires additional labor and expense by growers.Alejandro Hernandez/UCANR

With heavy rains in the forecast amid strengthening El Niño conditions, almond growers should be on the lookout for a rare disease that can cause severe damage to their orchards, according to Florent Trouillas, a University of California Cooperative Extension specialist in fruit and nut pathology.

Phytophthora, soilborne microorganisms dubbed “water molds” because of their dependence on water, typically cause root and crown rot at the base of trees. But a few aerial Phytophthora can travel upwards and infect the higher parts of the tree. One species – Phytophthora syringae – is drawing special attention due to an unprecedented outbreak last winter, fueled by the atmospheric rivers that lashed California.

“It was found statewide – meaning in every almond-producing county – and disease incidence in orchards ranged from 10% of the trees infected to 75%,” said Trouillas, a UC Davis plant pathologist whose lab is based at UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier.

Trouillas and his colleagues, UC Davis graduate student Alejandro Hernandez and UC Riverside plant pathology professor Jim Adaskaveg, recently published a detailed online article describing the pathogen, which can infect a range of crops but mainly impacts almonds in California.

Although it doesn't kill the tree, the disease causes branch dieback that requires significant additional work and expense for almond growers. In 2022, almonds were the state's fourth-highest valued commodity, at $3.52 billion.

During last year's aerial Phytophthora outbreak, researchers also observed a new and troubling phenomenon: P. syringae, historically known to attack the cuts caused by pruning, was directly infecting the young shoots on almond trees – without any wounds.

“This was really the first time we had seen widespread evidence of infection on the twigs,” Trouillas said.

Although generally rare, outbreaks of P. syringae have been traditionally associated with wet El Niño years, according to Trouillas – and recent and persistent rain across the state should have growers on high alert.

Prune in dry weather

While almond growers tend to prune during the downtime of winter, they should keep an eye on the forecast and aim for a 10- to 14-day window of dry weather to perform those tasks, whether training young trees or maintaining the established ones.

“If growers were to prune around a rain event – before, during or shortly after – this increases the likelihood of infection because this pathogen moves around with water,” Trouillas explained.

Researchers speculate that P. syringae, normally found in the soil, gets carried into the upper parts of a tree through strong winds and heavy rain. Alternatively, harvest processes like shaking and sweeping also produce air movements that may blow the microorganism into the canopy, where it waits for a favorable wet environment. The pathogen then attacks the wounds or young shoots, producing characteristic cankers and gumming.

The patterns and colors of the gum balls are keys to diagnosing an infection of this particular aerial Phytophthora. Starting around bloom time (mid-February), growers should monitor pruning wounds and young shoots on their trees, especially in the canopy, for signs of the disease.

The unique coloration of the gum balls – ranging from gold and amber to dark burgundy to bright red (see photos) – generally indicates P. syringae infection. But growers are urged to contact their local Cooperative Extension advisor for confirmation.

“It is super critical for growers that, whenever they see gumming, not to assume that it is this aerial phytophthora, because there are many other diseases that can cause gumming on the tree,” Trouillas said.

If the diagnosis is confirmed, growers may apply a compound that can mitigate the infection. The plant pathologists' recent writeup describes several curative treatment options, as well as a preventive measure that reduces the amount of pathogen in the soil and thus the likelihood of infection.

For more information on the pathogen's history and biology, as well as various options for disease management, visit the article on Sacramento Valley Orchard Source.

Source: University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

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Almonds

About the Author(s)

Mike Hsu

Senior Public Information Representative, UCANR

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