Avocados and Water
Avocados are the most salt and drought sensitive of our fruit tree crops. They are shallow rooted and are not able to exploit large volumes of soil and therefore are not capable of fully using stored rainfall. On the other hand, the avocado is highly dependent on rainfall for leaching accumulated salts resulting from irrigation water. In years with low rainfall, even well irrigated orchards will show salt damage. During flowering there can be extensive leaf drop due to the competition between flowers and leaves when there is salt/drought stress. In order to reduce leaf damage and retain leaves, an excess amount of water is required to leach salts out of the roots zone. The more salts in the water and the less rainfall, the greater leaching fraction.
Drought stress often leads to diseases, such as black streak, bacterial canker, and blight (stem, leaf, and fruit). Leaf blight (Figure 1) is often confused with salt or tip burn (Fig. 2), but is actually a fungal disease that forms an irregular dead pattern on leaves and leads to defoliation. Blight is associated with lack of water, while salt burn is due to poor quality water and poor irrigation habits. Leaf blight often shows up after Santa Ana conditions, when growers get behind on their irrigations and the root zone dries out suddenly. There has been a high incidence of this disease the last two years. In both cases, defoliation leads to sunburned trees and fruit which can be severe economic losses. The only way to prevent these conditions is to keep up with your irrigation schedule.
To get your water to go further, it is important that the system is tuned in order to get the best distribution uniformity (DU). Many of our systems were installed 40 years ago and old age can lead problems, such as clogging, broken emitters, mixed emitters that put out different amounts and leaks. With poor DU, some trees get too much water and others do not get enough. Even fairly new irrigation systems can have poor DU, especially after a harvest. Poor water pressure on our step slopes is probably our main problem. A DU of 80% means 10% of the emitters are putting out more than the average and 10% are putting out less. The irrigator to compensate for the under irrigated 10% will run the system 10% longer to make sure the under irrigated trees get enough and over irrigating 10% of the trees with 20% more water than they need. A call to the local Resource Conservation District office can get a free DU evaluation and recommendations that are usually pretty reasonable to follow.
Aside from improving DU, it is important to know when and how much water to apply. When to apply can be evaluated by the hand or feel method (https://nutrientmanagement.tamu.edu/content/tools/estimatingsoilmoisture.pdf) which is fast and cheap. Or it can be done by tensiometer, Watermark or some of the more expensive electronic sensors. But these tools only tell you when to irrigate, not how much. This can be done by turning the system on (once you have made sure you have a good DU) and over the period of the irrigation insert a piece of rebar into the soil to determine the depth of infiltration. The rod will go down as far as the soil is moist and stop when it hits dry dirt. When you have about two feet of infiltration you will know how long to run the system to get an appropriate amount of water. A typical loam usually takes about 150 gallons per tree to two feet. Another way to get an approximation of the amount to apply is to use the Irrigation Calculator at http://www.avocadosource.com/tools/IrrigationCalculator.asp.
Managing the Tree Canopy
Significantly pruning trees can reduce the amount of water transpired by the tree. Trees that are about 15 feet in height, can be pruned by half and they will use half the water. Massive 30 foot trees would need to have a major pruning to significantly reduce water use. In extreme drought conditions and for the long term welfare of the grove, large trees should be stumped (Figure 3) or scaffolded (Figure 4) and paint white to prevent sunburn. Scaffolding usually produces fruit much sooner than stumping, because retaining a significant part of the trunk and branches the tree does not exert as much energy to regrow and retains buds that have been under apical dominance for less time. When new shoots appear they should be headed back to force lateral branches which is where the flowers will form.
All the prunings should be chipped and left in the field. This will help conserve water and help control Phytophthora root rot. Root rot or crown rot trees should not be pruned until they have been brought to health with one of the phosphorous acid formulations. They all are effective. Pruning a sick redirects the trees energy to fighting off the disease when it starts pushing new growth and then does not have the energy to fight off the disease. Or if you do have areas that are diseased (sunblotch, root rot, crown rot, etc.), windblown, in shallow soils or areas of recurrent frost, you might just remove the trees completely to save water.
White kaolin (Surround) applied to leaves has been shown to reduce leaf temperatures and water loss. This can be used, but under the direction of the packing house, since it if it is applied to fruit, it is very difficult to remove.
These are some steps that a grower can take to improve water management and create a more efficient use of water to help survive this period of not knowing how long this drought will last.
Figure 1. Leaf blight is a disease that occurs with lack of water of any quality.
Figure 2. Salt damage from poor quality water and poor irrigation habits.
Figure 3. Stumped avocados for lack of water.
Figure 4. Scaffolded avocado that should produce fruit sooner than a stumped avocado.
When you see dieback in an avocado it could be due to several reasons, and here are three very common causes of dieback, one of which has been especially common when there is little rain. The first major cause of dieback is an overgrown tree where there is no light that penetrates into the canopy. Branches with leaves in a darkened interior will naturally shut down and dieback, leaving these twiggy dried out branches. This is a natural process whereby the tree just gets rid of leaves that are not performing.
Another cause of dieback is our old friend Avocado Root Rot, Phytophthora cinnamomi. This causes dieback, also called “stag horning” because of the dead branches standing out from the surrounding canopy. This is normally accompanied by a thinning canopy with smaller, yellow leaves and a lack of leaf litter because of lack of energy. It's also hard to find roots and if they are found, they are black at the tips and brittle.
The third major cause of dieback is a result of water stress. This shows up with low water pressure, at the top of the hill where the most wind occurs, where a sprinkler gets clogged, when the irrigation schedule is not meeting tree's needs or when there is not adequate rainfall to get sufficient leaching. And after four years of drought, this is very common. This appears as dead spots in the canopy, a branch here and there where the leaves have died and are still hanging. It's been called “salt and pepper” syndrome, because it can have a few branches here and there that have died back while the rest of the canopy is normal, the leaves are normally sized and green. In young trees, in severe cases, the fungus that causes this blight can work its way down to the graft union and kill the tree. In mature trees, it just causes an unthrifty look to the tree. Although we have always seen this problem in avocado orchards, this has become a very common affliction in orchards these last few years
1) Lack of light dieback
2) Phytophthora cinnamomi dieback
3) Stem and Leaf Blight
Dothiorella leaf blight which is really a whole range of fungi that cause leaf diseases, along with cankers and wilts goes to many different host plants from citrus to Brazlian pepper to ash to redwood to palm to pittosporum to eucalyptus to pine. Look around, this year you'll see lots of it because it results from water and salt stress.
Images: ash, redwood, avocado, lemon, palm, pistachio, blueberry
I recently went out to an avocado orchard on sandy soil that had had sudden leaf drop after a Santa Ana condition. The problem is that the orchard had had an ongoing leaf blight problem that had been accentuated by two years of drought and with the Santa Ana more pressure had been put on the trees. This is a condition that has become more and more pronounced over the year and with little rainfall is going to be something to watch out for this coming irrigation season.
Stem and leaf blights are symptoms that appear for various reasons – high rainfall or humidity, spray burn, chewing insect infestation. Here in California we can add other causes, such as drought and salinity burn. These conditions can cause wounding of leaf and stems allowing entry of fungal spores that can cause leaf and stem dieback. This condition is most common near the coast where weather conditions can change from mild and low temperatures to extremely high temperature with winds, such as the Santa Anas or the Sundowners in Santa Barbara. Leaves suddenly dry out, causing cracking either at that time or when they are rehydrated with irrigation. This allows spore entry into the wounds and permits the pathogen to grow in the dead tissue. Symptoms appear 7 – 10 days after the stress. These are decay fungi that create these spores and they are the ones that cause decay of dead tissue on the ground. So their spores are everywhere.
The greater part of a tree is dead – the woody part of the branches and trunk. And it is dead tissue that these fungi are feeding on. Most trees will limit the growth of the fungus by sealing off the infection with gums of various sorts. In that case, the disease is limited and you may only see a leaf or small branch dying back. In mature trees it is possible to see a small branch here and there that has died back, but the bulk of the canopy is still green. It has been called “salt and pepper syndrome”, because of that speckled appearance. In the case of young trees with their smaller root systems and a lesser ability to seal of the disease process, a whole tree can die.
Since this is a severe water stress or salt stress induced problem, the most important management issue is to watch the weather forecasts predicting unusual hot, dry weather and make sure the trees are adequately irrigated going into the stressful period. Shallow rooted trees like avocados are more prone to dry out rapidly in these high water demand situations, but it can be occur in other trees (citrus, apple, peach) and shrubs if the weather conditions are severe enough. With poor leaching due to low rainfall, this can be more of a problem
The only solution to the symptoms is to cut out the diseased parts to prevent its further spread. Once the disease starts spreading, the fungus can produce copious amounts of spores, which in the case of avocado can cause cankers and rots on the fruit.
Some symptoms of leaf blight. Spots that progress into marginal necrosis can occur or just general necrosis.
- Author: Akif Eskalen and Virginia McDonald
Branch and trunk canker on avocado was formerly attributed to Dothiorella gregaria, hence the name Dothiorella canker. So far Botryopshaeria dothidea (anamorph: Fusicoccum aesculi) is the only known species causing Dothiorella canker on avocado in California. Symptoms observed on avocado with Dothiorella canker include shoot blight and dieback, leaf scorch, fruit rot, and cankers on branches and bark.
However, recent studies based on DNA analyses suggest greater species diversity of this pathogen group than based on morphological characteristics alone. Thus far, multiple species of Botryosphaeriaceae have been found to cause the typical Dothiorella canker (Fig3.) and stem-end rot (Fig 5) on avocado in California. Percent recovery of Botryosphaeria spp. based on morphological characters ranged from 40-100% in Riverside county, 42-53% in Ventura county, 33% in Santa Barbara county, 60% in San Diego county and 32-60% in San Luis Obispo county.
According to preliminary results from a continuing survey throughout avocado growing areas of California, multiple species of Botryosphaeria (Neofusicoccum australe, B. dothidea, N. luteum, and N. parvum) were found.
Pycnidia (overwintering structure) of Botryosphaeriaceae species were also observed on old diseased avocado tree branches. Sequenced rDNA fragments (ITS1, 5.8S rDNA, ITS2, amplified with ITS4 and ITS5 primers) were compared with sequences deposited in GenBank.
Pathogenicity tests were conducted in the greenhouse on 1-year-old avocado seedlings, Hass cv., with one randomly chosen isolate from each of the Botryosphaeriaceae species noted above. Four replicate seedlings were stem-wound inoculated with a mycelial plug and covered with Parafilm. Sterile PDA plugs were applied to four seedlings as a control. Over a period of 6 months, seedlings were assessed for disease symptoms that included browning of leaf edges and shoot dieback. Mean vascular lesion lengths on stems were 64, 66, 64, and 18 mm for B. dothidea, N. parvum, N. luteum, and N. australe, respectively. Each fungal isolate was consistently reisolated from inoculated seedlings, thus completing the pathogenicity test. To our knowledge, this is the first report of N. australe, N. luteum, and N. parvum recovered from branch cankers on avocado in California.
These results are significant because Botryosphaeriaceae canker pathogens are known to enter the host plant through fresh wounds (pruning, frost, and mechanical). With high-density planting becoming more common, which requires intensive pruning, the transmission rate of these pathogens could increase in California avocado groves. The Eskalen laboratory is currently investigating control measures for dothiorella canker and stem-end rot pathogens.
Branch dieback and trunk canker caused by the fungus