Deformed Flowers? It May Be Aster Yellows

Lately I have seen a lot of chatter on Facebook about distorted Echinacea and Rudbeckia flowers in the garden. I too noticed this in my Virginia garden, so I looked it up.

Sure enough, my plants have “aster yellows.” Aster yellows is caused by a phytoplasma, a small bacterium. This is a disease that affects more than 300 species of plants, including asters, coneflowers, zinnias, marigolds, heleniums, and chrysanthemums. And it is not just ornamental plants but edibles such as garlic, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, and celery.

Aster yellows is primarily transmitted via leafhoppers. Leafhoppers are small insects, only a few centimeters long, with wedge-shaped, brown, yellow, or green bodies. As the name suggests, they quickly hop from plant to plant. When a leafhopper feeds on a plant infected with aster yellows, the pathogen enters the leafhopper’s body and stays within for as long as that leafhopper lives. So as it feeds on plants and moves around from plant to plant, it spreads the phytoplasma thus spreading the disease. Once a plant is infected, if it is not removed, it remains a host plant — a source of phytoplasma for the rest of the plants in the garden.

Symptoms vary depending on the plant but in my garden, the flowers are grossly deformed. The flower heads are twisted and some are producing small tufts of green growth in the center of the flower. Some petals are too short or green–often there is more green than the color the flower should be. Once plants are infected, they should be removed from the garden. They cannot be cured.

My plants came from a pack of wildflower seed mix – the type you get free at fairs. For me it is not so much of a loss since it was a free pack of seeds, but I can see how aster yellows can cause damage to the pocket book when people spend a lot of money purchasing container plants. Still, I have had to pull the entire plant, roots and all and re-think what I will plant in that area. Although aster yellows do not survive in dead plant tissue, I do not put my infected plants in the compost pile.

The only thing you can do to prevent aster yellows to remove and destroy diseased plants as soon as possible to prevent the spread, control weeds which may harbor the disease, and purchase ornamentals that are not as susceptible such as verbena, salvia, nicotiana, geraniums, impatiens, and cockscomb. But keep an eye out, this seems to be the year for aster yellows!

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