We humans have considered ourselves at the top of the food chain above all the plants, fish, birds and mammals. But the real top of the food chain is actually the bacteria, viruses and fungi that feed upon us. Coronavirus is just the most recent example of how nature may work to put us in our place, so to speak. Great civilizations have disappeared due to plagues and pestilences in the past, and we can learn these lessons as we tend our gardens.
We have viruses, bacteria and other disease-causing organisms around us most of the time. We think of these primitive life forms as being on the bottom of the food chain, but they are really on the top since some feed on higher life forms at every level.
When it comes to the plants in our gardens, the best disease prevention measure you can take is to start with healthy or disease-resistant plants. Once a plant becomes badly diseased, it is difficult to nurse it back to health. For this reason, every effort should be made to prevent introduction of disease-causing organisms on plant material or in soil. Plants with poor or weak growth are usually more susceptible to these diseases. Good cultural and sanitation practices will help prevent trouble such as removing diseased parts like leaves or branches as soon as they appear. Treat pruning wounds with a specially prepared material to stop entrance of wood-decaying organisms and wood-feeding insects.
For treatment of fungus-diseased plants, fungicide applications should begin when disease development first appears and should continue as recommended by the manufacturer.
Other organisms that cause problems on plants, people, and even buildings may not be diseases but are bothersome. Two types that are found throughout the tropical world including Hawaii are house mildew and green algae. Mildew flourishes in damp places. Hawaii’s high humidity often creates conditions favorable to the growth of this unsightly problem.
Where mildew is already established on walls, remove as much as possible by scrubbing the discolored surfaces with a strong detergent in warm water. The remaining mold spores should then be killed with a treatment of household bleach, applied at the rate of 1 pint per gallon of water. If the affected surfaces need repainting, then the use of a mildew resistant paint is recommended or a standard paint to which a mildew retardant has been added. They also point out that paints that provide a smooth surface will discourage the lodging of mold spores. Algae commonly grow on the surface of soil that is moist for periods of time. This is very common during the rainy season. These minute green plants often develop in such profusion that it forms a rather thick, greenish to blackish mat. Growth of such magnitude in a turf planting is detrimental to the grass because algae actively compete with the grass for both space and nutrients. In addition, if the algae mat dries, it forms a crust that retards or prevents the movement of water into the soil. If this occurs, the grass is subjected to a moisture stress directly due to the presence of the algae.
The same conditions that favor the growth of algae also favor the growth of fungi that bring on turf grass diseases. In fact, a close association has been noted between frequent disease outbreaks and the presence of algae. Reducing the moisture level would be the ideal method, however, in many situations this is not possible, and other control measures must be used. The use of fungicides that are effective against both turf diseases and algae is an efficient method of control.
Bacteria, fungus and viruses are not just bad guys. Limu is an algae, yogurt is the result of certain types of bacteria, and those delicious mushrooms we enjoy incorporated in gourmet cooking are fungi.
However, prevention of disease organisms is vital and also includes keeping them out of Hawaii. Some folks get unhappy when they find they can’t bring certain plants or seeds into Hawaii, or if they can, they have to go through all kinds of red tape, fumigation or extended quarantines to get the plants here.
A few folks figure it is a bother to get permits and go through the proper procedure to bring plants to Hawaii. They smuggle a few plants thinking it won’t make any difference. This attitude couldn’t be further from the truth or more dangerous. Florida has one of the best examples of what happens when folks get careless about clean plant introductions. Lethal yellowing, a virus type disease killed palms by the tens of thousands there and is a threat to other areas like Hawaii. The disease affects coconut palms and Hawaiian Fan Palm, Pritchardia species. The disease attacks other types of palms as well. The disease, similar to a virus, is a mycoplasma that infects the plant. Taking palms from infested areas to an area free of lethal yellowing is extremely dangerous. A leafhopper is involved in spreading this palm plague. Florida lost 90% of its coconut palms and had to replace them with Dwarf Malay Coconut palms at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. There is no control at present except avoiding carrying this disease to unaffected areas.
Another disease that may have been accidently introduced to Hawaii is rapid ohia death thought to be caused by a Ceratocystus fungus. It is presently killing large stands of ohia on our island. No cure is known at this times but sanitation is the key. Moving plant materials, or even wood, soil from infected areas to healthy forests could kill most of the ohia in Hawaii.
Like Coronavirus, sanitation is the best method to minimize the spread of disease until we find a vaccine for prevention and a cure.