5th National Climate Assessment and an Update on the Plant Hardiness Zone Map

This month has been an exciting one for climatologists around the United States with the November 14 release of the Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA5), a massive project that is undertaken every four years to capture our current understanding of climate change based on recent research. I was a chapter author for the Southeast and spent the last two years working with over 700 authors around the United States to gather and document how the climate is changing and how it is affecting all of us. This week I will explain how NCA5 was put together, what it says about climate, and what gardeners can do to help reduce the future impacts of global warming and other climate changes. But this month was also exciting because USDA just released an updated Plant Hardiness Zone map, just a few weeks after my post in October about how the 2012 map was outdated. I guess they were listening (just kidding!). I will discuss that briefly at the end of this post, too.

Frost on the grass/moss, Timo Newton-Syms, Commons Wikimedia

What is the National Climate Assessment?

The National Climate Assessment (NCA) is a report mandated by Congress to compile the latest scientific findings on how climate is changing so that we can respond to reduce its future impacts. It is published every four years, and the last one (the 4th NCA) was released on the day after Thanksgiving in 2017. While the underlying message has not changed, each assessment focuses on the newest scientific research that has been published since the last assessment was done. The document is divided into chapters so that the authors of each chapter could concentrate on that topic.

NEWS STREAM VI – REFLECTIONS by Taina Litwak as part of the NCA5 art competition (see all entries along with artist statements at https://nca2023.globalchange.gov/art-climate/).

NCA5 starts with a review of the general scientific principles of how the climate is changing. That is followed by seventeen chapters focused on national topics such as agriculture, water, energy, and transportation as well as specific groups that are being especially affected by climate change such as indigenous peoples. Following the national topics, chapters address changes that are happening in ten different regions of the country . These address how we need to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the warming of the earth as well as how we can adapt to the changes that are already happening now and may get worse in the future.

How was NCA5 produced?

There is a long process involved in producing a national climate assessment. Teams of scientists from an array of disciplines were chosen as authors for each chapter to write the initial text of the document. To keep the authors on task and within tight word limits, there were lead chapter authors and technical advisors who moderated group meetings where the key messages for our chapter were identified. Initial figures to include in each chapter were drafted by a graphics team or requested from scientific journals. After the first draft was complete it was first reviewed by federal agencies to make sure that their concerns were addressed and then by the public, who provided many additional comments. All of these comments were provided to the chapter authors so they could refine their text and figures for the next draft. In all, the document when through six different reviews and all comments were addressed.

Frost on a borago officinalis flower, Stanzilla, Commons Wikimedia

Where can I read NCA5 and learn more about what it says?

The NCA contains a vast amount of information in its 32 chapters, five appendices, and special topics, so it is hard to summarize. I encourage you to explore the document online to see what it says about your region and special topics of interest like agriculture, land, and ecosystems. A good starting place is the introductory website https://www.globalchange.gov/our-work/fifth-national-climate-assessment, which explains how the report was written and provides links to read the report, attend a webinar on an individual chapter, and see where the figures came from. I also encourage you to explore the excellent interactive atlas developed in conjunction with the report. Many other resources such as podcasts are available, too.

What are some steps that gardeners can take to respond to climate change?

There are two approaches that gardeners (and all of us) need to take to respond to the challenges of a changing climate. We are already dealing with the consequences of trends towards warmer temperatures and more extreme swings in the water cycle such as increases in floods and droughts. Gardeners are adapting to these changes in climate by planting different plants that are better suited to the warmer climate and changing how they manage their gardens using rain gardens, drip irrigation, and other techniques. Adaptation is a key approach that gardeners will continue to need to follow as the climate continues to get warmer and more variable.

In addition all of us, including gardeners, have a responsibility to cut the emissions of additional fossil fuels which are driving most of the warming (mitigation is reducing the inputs to prevent future harm). This will reduce the impacts that our world will have to navigate in the future. Even a small decrease in the emission of greenhouse gases now can prevent the worst outcomes. A prime target for gardeners is the elimination of gasoline-powered equipment like blowers, mowers, and trimmers. These small tools have highly inefficient engines that emit a lot of greenhouse gases as well as air pollutants (and a lot of noise, too). Switching to electric tools and vehicles, composting, adding solar power to houses and businesses, and conserving energy and water (which often uses energy to purify it) through carefully chosen plantings as well as through other methods can also help reduce future warming.

Frosted flower buds, Tony Hisgett, Commons Wikimedia.

What about the new USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map?

I was surprised last week that the USDA had just produced an update to the 2012 map that I discussed last month. In that post, I noted that the 2012 map was already outdated due to the increasing temperatures we have seen in the 21st century. The new 2023 map uses data from 1991-2020, the current 30-year normal period, to identify the current plant hardiness zones for the United States. You can see the new map and zoom to your city at https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/. By comparing it to the 2012 map, you will see that more than half the country has increased by half a zone, which correlates to about a 5-degree F increase in the average lowest minimum temperature a location experiences each year. I asked USDA for a map that showed the changes of zone and was provided one by Chris Daly of the PRISM group that put together the 2023 map (below). Areas in tan experienced a half-zone change since the 2012 map. (There are a few areas in the Mountain West where the zones got colder, as shown in green, but these are mostly linked to new datasets that were available for the analysis rather than any changes to the local climate there.)

Science has made it clear that the earth’s climate is changing and that most of the warming we are experiencing is due to burning of fossil fuels. We must learn to adapt to these changes and make sure that all groups can be protected from the worst impacts of the more extreme weather we are likely to experience. But we can also make changes now to reduce those future impacts, and I know gardeners will be part of that solution.

November PDX leaves, Loren Kerns, Commons Wikimedia

Plant Disease Primer- Part 4: Going Viral

Previously in this series I started with some plant disease basics and then covered some common fungal diseases and then bacterial diseases. Now let’s turn our attention to viruses. Just like with fungi and bacteria before, in this installment I’m going to talk about some of the most common viral plant diseases with some suggestions for treatment and prevention. This by no means will be an exhaustive list of diseases (there are so many!), but I hope to cover some of the most common ones that trouble gardeners.

Unlike fungi and bacteria and just like human viruses like the common cold, there typically aren’t treatments that you can use to “cure” or treat a viral infection. Therefore prevention is the only way to limit viral disease spread in plants. Also unlike fungi and bacteria, viruses are not living organisms.  They don’t have cellular “machinery” and are typically a snippet of genetic material (DNA or RNA) encased in a protein coat or similar structure. Since they aren’t living, they don’t reproduce outside of a host organism and don’t typically have the ability to spread themselves around the environment, instead relying on hosts to carry them. For plant viral diseases this usually involves manual movement on humans, tools, or possibly animals or inside of a secondary host organism like an insect’s digestive tract. Aphids are a common vector, as they consume and secrete infected sap. Viruses can often spread through infected seed or vegetative propagules like seed potatoes or cuttings. And since they aren’t living entities and are microscopic there are no signs (visible presence of causal agent) of disease, only symptoms.

Mosaic Viruses

I’m lumping mosaic viruses together because there are lots and lots of them, each affecting a different range of host plants but with similar symptoms. Many viruses affect a specific species or genus of plants while others have a broad host range. Common symptoms include: yellowing, mottling, mosaic patterns on leaves, curling, stunted growth, reduced fruit quality and size, and necrosis.

Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) is the most persistent and infectious virus and has a very wide host range, including tobacco and other members of the Solanaceae family like tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, other vegetables, and ornamental plants. The host range is estimated to be up to 350 species.

Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) on Tobacco, Source: UK Extension

TMV is spread through sap and infected seeds. Virus transmission through sap can be a result of physical contact (brushing against plants when moving through a field/garden), dirty tools, aphid feeding, or even from tobacco use. TMV is so pervasive and persistent that many nursery and greenhouse businesses have strict tobacco policies for employees and for employees who do use tobacco there is usually a hand sanitation requirement.

Tomato Mosaic Virus (ToMV) on Tomato, Source: UF IFAS

Other mosaic viruses include Tomato Mosaic Virus (ToMV), Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV), Zucchini Yellow Mosaic Virus (ZYMV), Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMV), Squash Mosaic Virus (SqMV), Bean Common Mosaic Virus (BCMV), and Rose Mosaic Virus (RMV).

Zucchini Yellow Mosaic Virus (ZYMV), Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl Virus (TYLCV)

  • Common symptoms: Yellowing and curling of leaves, stunted growth
  • Host Plants: Tomatoes, Peppers
  • Insect Vectors: Whitefly
Source: LSU AgCenter

Tomato Ringspot Virus (ToRSV)

  • Common symptoms: yellow rings on leaves, mottling, distortion, mosaic, rings on fruits, necrosis
  • Host Plants: Tomatoes, other Solanaceous crops, wide range of others
  • Vector: Nematodes
Source: Wisconsin Pest Bulletin

Potato Virus Y (PVY)

  • Common symptoms: Leaf discoloration, mosaic patterns, tuber deformation
  • Host Plants: Potatoes, Tomatoes, Peppers
  • Insect vector: aphids
Source: University of Maine

Hosta Virus X (HVX)

  • Common Symptoms: irregular yellow or light green streaks, mottling, leaf distortion, feathering pattern (looks like colors painted on by brush), stunting, and reduced vigor
  • Host Plants: Hosta
  • Insect Vectors: None/unknown

Rose Rosette Disease (RRD)

  • Common symptoms: Rapid growth, witches brooming, excessive red coloration (in terminal bracts), deformed leaves, excessive thorns
  • Host Plants: Roses
  • Insect Vectors: Eriophyid mites
Source: NC Extension

Plum Pox Virus (PPV)

  • Symptoms: Leaf distortion, fruit deformities
  • Host Plants: Plum, peach, apricot
  • Insect Vectors: Aphids

Control and Prevention

Unfortunately, since there is no treatment for viruses and plants don’t have immune responses that eliminate them like humans and animals do, the only “control” for viruses in the garden is by removal of infected plants. There is no way to “cure” an infected plant, but removal from the landscape or garden can reduce the viral load available to vectors in the garden and can help slow or eliminate the spread to other plants. Since symptoms may not appear right away, it is possible that viruses can spread to multiple plants before detection. 

Since viral infection typically means a death-sentence for the plant, prevention through Integrated Pest Management is of utmost importance.  Here are some common and effective IMP practices that can help reduce the spread of viruses in the garden.

  1. Purchase certified disease-free seeds or plant cuttings. Unfortunately, viruses can spread easily through untested seeds and cuttings so take caution in sharing at places like plant and seed swaps.
  2. Practice good sanitation: remove and destroy infected leaves and plants ASAP
  3. Clean tools regularly: viruses spread through sap transfer, so cleaning and disinfecting tools is a must. Sometimes in high-value or susceptible plants, disinfection should be done between using tools on individual plants, especially pruners. Use a dilute 10% bleach solution, rubbing alcohol, or horticultural sanitizer for best results.
  4. Quarantine new plants: If a plant appears suspicious, keep it potted in an out of the way place until you can determine possible infection. This is especially important for plants from discount retailers, plant swaps, etc but can hold true for plants from any source.
  5. Purchase disease-resistant cultivars when possible.
  6. Control vector insects, especially aphids.
  7. Wash hands before gardening, ESPECIALLY if you are a tobacco user.
  8. Do not use tobacco products while gardening.

Wrapping it up

There are lots of bacterial diseases that can damage or kill plants in our gardens or landscapes. Prevention is key, as treatments only help slow the spread of disease. In the next (and final) installment, we’ll talk about diseases that are caused by things that aren’t fungi, bacteria, or viruses.

Ok–I know something is wrong, but what is it?

Facebook and other social media attempt to help us solve problems.  This group and others seek to inform gardeners and solve problems they are having growing plants.  Looking at queries and posted responses there is so much information missing, leading to wrong and misleading comments in many of these discussions.  I think it is a good idea to reexamine the diagnostic process and how gardeners can solve their own diagnostic questions.

I know there is something wrong with this Ficus but what is it? To diagnose this tree disorder many steps need to be taken to understand the problem

Diagnosis is always the precursor to solving a plant problem. In the world of plant pathology, palliative care (treating symptoms) is often ineffective if the cause of the disorder is unknown. It is amazing how on social media so many cures, fixes, MacGyvers, or treatments are suggested even before a diagnosis is made. The diagnostic process has many components so its good to be familiar with some of the steps in this process.

Identify the plant

All plants have published names and are based on herbarium specimens. The published names of plants are all scientific binomial names. The first name is the genus and second the specific epithet or species.

Host identification comes as the first step in diagnosis. It sounds simple or silly, but knowing the host name is the first step in diagnosis. Find the scientific name of the plant and then specific disorders of that taxa can be sought out in a web search. Common names are misleading and it is critical to associate disorders with the exact plant you have a problem with. If you are diagnosing remotely (as I am often forced to do), knowing the location is the next question as many disorders are regional. For instance we don’t have black knot of plum in southern California while in southern Ontario, Canada and New York state that is a big problem.

Look at the whole organism

So many gardeners only focus on where they see symptoms. A leaf, shoot, or branch with something that does not look right is a good place to start looking, but always consider the entire plant. It is important to see the entire plant and what the distribution of above ground symptoms is. Don’t forget the “whole organism” includes its root system which is often neglected in diagnosis.

Examine the entire plant including its roots for symptoms

Look at all the components of the plant

Symptoms which are plant responses to a disease or disorder often occur on leaves. The problem, however, may be in the roots. Root rots may go undetected until almost the entire root system is decayed; only then do symptoms start to appear on the distal or far portion of the plant. These rapidly or slowly spread until the entire plant is affected. Whenever there is uniform symptomology of the foliage, always check the root system. Symptoms on only a single branch of a perennial may be localized to that branch, so follow the symptomatic branch back to its attachment point to locate any damage or disease along its stem.

Examining stems in the ficus picture above shows clear canker symptoms typical of Botryosphaeria canker in Ficus. The yellowing leaves are a symptom, but not the cause of the disorder.

Look closely

It often helps to use a hand lends to closely observe insects, insect products like webbing, eggs, pupal cases, or frass, or just to validate that there are no insects or their products present. Many many fungi form fungal fruiting bodies in dead stem portions and these look like tiny grains of pepper under a hand lens. A closer view is often helpful in deciding if a problem is localized or system in the plant.

A hand lens can supply 15-25x magnification

Look for symptoms and signs

Symptoms are plant responses to attack from pathogens, insects or abiotic causes such as herbicides, toxic salts, high and low temperatures etc. Symptoms alert the gardener that there is something wrong but may or may not point the way to the cause of the problem. It is also important to look for signs which are parts of the biology causing the problem. Fungal growths, spores, fruiting bodies insects adults and immatures stages of insects and the products they produce and leave behind are all signs. Signs give more direct evidence of the cause of a problem.

Look around

You may not be the only gardener with a plant problem. Look to see if other plants in your garden are similarly affected. If only a single taxa is affected it could possibly be a disease or insect problem. If many different kinds of plants are affected it may be from a non-biological cause–an abiotic disease or environmental disorder. Solving these diagnoses often requires lab work and specific soil or plant sampling

Distortion of new growth is a symptom. it has many causes but the fact that it is occurring on multiple taxa in a single site suggests herbicide toxicity. In this case the culprit is an herbicide called Polaris and the active ingredient is imazapyr.

Seek confirmation

Once you have collected all the the information (symptoms and signs) over the entire plant (including if necessary root symptoms), it is time to put the information to work. Searching on your own, on the internet, is daunting because there is so much misleading information. If you have the scientific name, you can put that in a search engine along with the symptoms and tentative ID of insects or pathogens and then look at all the images that match what you have. Click on the image and check the source of the file. If from an .edu or educational source, it is likely a higher quality of information. Read these first.

Taking samples to a lab or University Extension office is of limited value because they can’t see the entire plant. It’s best to take samples to an expert when you have a good hunch what is going on and you want to confirm it (you should include images of the whole plant if you can). So much money is spent sending random leaf or twig samples to labs and they end up sending information that is misleading or just wrong as far as the diagnosis goes. Thousands of fungi grow on plant surfaces and labs will isolate these, some are pathogens but may not be on your specific plant as pathogens can be quite specific to plants they have a disease relationship with. The lab report comes back with a finding Alternaria spp. This is indeed a pathogen of tomato and many other plants but it is also a very common saprophyte often found growing on dead plant tissues. So lab findings are helpful when they confirm your own suspicions, but often unhelpful when random plant tissues are sent by a gardener that has no idea what is happening. This is true of any lab, university or private. The more information the lab has, the more helpful they can be. And all labs everywhere would prefer to have the entire organism for diagnosis.

Diagnosis is hard. The best diagnosticians are correct (solve the diagnostic problem) about 2/3 of the time. Sometimes diagnosis of a problem can take years. Some diagnoses are never solved. But for most common plant problems you can find answers by intelligently searching the internet and with some help from the “ologists” of University and private diagnostic firms.

This disorder of Lantana camara took over ten years to diagnose. Samples sent to the state agriculture lab were studied for virus and fungal pests. No results came of it. The disorder was finally resolved when flies of the genus Liriomyza spp. were reared from leaves. Lantana Blotch Miner is widely distributed in Southern California only on L. camara.