Perils lurk in paradise

  • Many fungi are beneficial like this one that help to break down dead leaves and branches to improve our tropical soils. (Voltaire Moise/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Local folks and visitors often feel that our islands have few dangers except for rare volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and hurricanes. Excessive exposure to the sun can be dangerous and people drown every year by being careless at the beach or hiking in the mountains. Although there are few poisonous native plants, some common exotic landscape plants are toxic such as oleander, crotons and angel trumpets. Some people can experience skin reactions like exposure to poison ivy from cashew and mango trees.

When it comes to animals, most folks don’t know that we have a native very poisonous snake. The yellow-bellied sea snake is found through out the tropical Pacific including Hawaii. Then there are the giant Bufo toads that some have confused with bullfrogs. The toad’s skin is toxic so eating them is bad news!

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We also have a cute green and black poison arrow frog on Oahu. It is not a good idea to play with them.

Lately, we have become very aware of human disease being spread to Hawaii like COVID-19. In the past, we have had outbreaks of imported dengue fever, malaria, rat lung disease and even Bubonic plague so we must be aware of these threats as well.

There is another kind of peril that isn’t quite so obvious and it is the destruction to our environment by accidentally introducing diseases and pests. Many of the plant diseases we have today did not exist before humans arrived. Once here, they are not easy to control. The best disease prevention measure you can take with ornamental plants, fruits and vegetables is to start with healthy disease resistant plants. A common fungus referred to as plumeria rust is showing up on many garden plumeria now. This disease is relatively new to Hawaii. Symptoms show up as a rusty appearance on the underside of leaves. This causes premature yellowing and dying of leaves.

According to University of Hawaii plant pathologists, 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. Identifying the cause is vital to knowing the proper cure.

Good cultural and sanitation practices will help prevent trouble such as removing diseased parts like leaves or branches as soon as they appear infected. 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.

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 turf 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. The same conditions that favor the growth of algae also favor the growth of fungi that cause turf grass diseases. In fact, a close association has been noted between frequent disease outbreaks and the presence of algae. Therefore, it is desirable to control both problems with one practice. Reducing the moisture level would be the ideal method, however, in many situations, this is not possible. 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. Your local garden supply or nursery can assist you on the correct material to use. You may also call the Master Gardener hotline at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture. In Hilo, the main number is 981-5199. In Kona, the main number is 322-4893. You may then be directed to master gardeners to assist you.

Bacteria, fungi and algae are not always doing harm. Our edible limu is an alga, yogurt is the result of a certain type of bacteria, and those delicious mushrooms on your steak are a fungus. These beneficial organisms are important to a healthy soil, and to human nutrition. Many that are yet to be discovered may be key in developing new drugs to fight disease in plants, animals and man.

However, prevention of disease organisms is vital and also includes keeping it 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 through. 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. If it weren’t for people bringing in disease- and insect-infested plant materials, our island would not be plagued with such creatures as fruit flies, burrowing nematodes, and many other pests that damage food crops as well as ornamentals. Just the fact that we are plagued by fruit flies means that the potential export of mangos and other tropical fruits is nipped in the bud. So we lose millions of dollars of potential income just because of some careless person who didn’t think it would hurt to smuggle in some fruit. Now there are serious fines and even imprisonment for plant or animal smuggling. This should discourage potential pest introductions.

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Florida has one of the best examples of what happens when folks get careless about clean plant introductions. Lethal yellowing, a disease of palms, killed coconut palms by the millions and is a threat to other areas like Hawaii. The disease affects coconut palms, manila palms, and Hawaiian loulu palms. If lethal yellowing arrived here by importing infected plants, our native palm species would soon be extinct. According to the University of Florida, the disease has been reported in the Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Cuba, other Caribbean Islands, Venezuela, Panama and West Africa. It was identified in Key West in 1955 and ultimately spread all over South Florida. 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 and over the last years, Florida lost at least 90% of their coconut palms. Fortunately, the slower growing Samoan and Malayan coconut palms resistant to the disease have replaced those lost, but the cost ran into hundreds of million of dollars.

This again shows we should support our state and federal agricultural quarantines. Importing plants illegally could bring a devastating disease like this to Hawaii. There are ways to bring in new plants to Hawaii legally. The state Department of Agriculture and UDSA Plant Quarantine Office can give you the details. By following the law, hundreds of new plant introductions are being made each year. These can enrich our lives without bringing with them unwanted insects and diseases that could bring disaster to our economy.

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