Onion smut

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Fig. 1. Infected leaves can become
bloated and split open, releasing spores
and contaminating the surrounding
soil.  Photo taken early August, 2019.
Onion smut only infects Alliums, and is a disease that can lie dormant in the soil for 15+ years, even in the absence of a host crop.  A cold spring such as we had this year results in the onion flag leaf emerging slowly, increasing the likelihood of smut infecting the onion.  The smut fungi can only penetrate and infect young seedlings - if the cotyledon escapes infection until it is mature, no further infection can occur despite high disease pressure. For this reason, healthy transplanted onions or onion sets typically avoid being infected by smut since they do not emerge in infected soils.  The infection period is from two or three days after the seed germinates until the first leaf is about three inches tall (about 10-21 days, depending on the year.)

Fig. 2. Black streaking on the onion bulb, August.
Early infections can result in seedling death, and plants that do survive will have characteristic black spots, blisters, and/or streaking (Fig. 1, 2).  Some infected plants will shed their outer leaves in the second month of growth, and continue growing, free of infection.  However, this year I'm seeing many infected plants that have survived the first few weeks of infection, and the smut fungus has continued to grow, systematically colonizing the plant.  These plants are are usually stunted.  Black pustules can infect as deep as the third or fourth scale (Figure 3).  Many infected plants will dry up, wither, and die by harvest.  Infected bulbs that do make it into storage shrink more rapidly, and are more prone to bacterial rots which can contaminate other bulbs in storage.

The causal fungi, Urocystis magica (synonym: U. cepulae) and U. colchici, can be transmitted from one field to another by surface drainage water, wind-blown soil, tools and farm equipment, soil in your shoe or truck treads, or any other method that transports soil.  Have you read Perennia's fact sheet about biosecurity in horticulture crops?

Fig. 3.  Smut infections penetrating several scales deep.

Long crop rotations are an important tool to limit the build up of disease in the soil.  Conventional growers that are planting into a known infected field should use seed treatments or an in-furrow fungicide application.  If organic or small-scale growers have a field history of onion smut, it is recommended to transplant onions into the field, rather than plant from seed in the infected soil.  Growers with smaller plantings should also remove and destroy diseased seedlings and plants to avoid building disease levels in the soil.



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