Jan 26, 2016
Crown gall – a growing concern in vineyards

The past two winters have ramped up concerns about crown gall in Pennsylvania and other parts of the Northeast. Wine grape growers are discovering, many for the first time, the horrors of this disease and the extent of the damage it can cause in their vineyards. While there is reason for great concern, I would like to start out by saying that research efforts are generating extensive information on management of this disease, and there are new solutions from research in the pipeline.

Crown gall and increased susceptibility to winter injury

After the past couple of harsh winters vines have been collapsing in your once “healthy” and productive vineyard. What’s going on?

In some cases, brutal winter cold has simply damaged or killed a vine that was not suitable for its site. It is well known that the many varieties ofVitis vinifera that vintners prefer are simply less cold hardy than many of the French hybrid varieties. The crown gall bacterium, Agrobacterium vitis, can also play a large role by rendering infected vines incapable of properly repairing the cold damage to their trunks. The most obvious symptom of crown gall infection is gall formation at the base of infected vines. These tumor-like growths eventually choke out the vascular connection between roots and canopy, and the vine collapses (Figures 1 and 2).

crown gall - before and after
Figures 1 and 2: Crown gall on a trunk – before and after bark is stripped away. Photo: Penn State University.

How did vines get contaminated with the crown gall bacterium in the first place and why is it now causing problems?

There are many sources of the crown gall bacterium and probably many ways in which vines can acquire it. It is now known that the bacterium exists in populations of wild grapevines and can be found on plant surfaces in the vineyard. The most likely or common source, however, is through contaminated nursery stock. Since the bacterium can live systemically as an endophyte inside vines used for propagation material, cuttings from that material will carry the bacterium as well. The bacterium that causes crown gall can probably live inside vines without ever causing any disease, without causing the growth of tumors at the base of the trunk, without bringing about the collapse of vine trunks. Cuttings, produced from symptomless, contaminated mother vines, may be contaminated with the bacterium from “day one,” but may never develop crown gall. This is probably the case in California and other Mediterranean climates where many of the world’s wine grapes are grown.

So why is crown gall such a problem here in the Northeast, and not in California?

The crown gall bacterium shifts from benign coexistence, as an endophyte inside vines, into a tumor-inducing organism when there is damage or injury to grapevine vascular tissue. When injury occurs to the cambium, the bacterium attaches to plant cells at the wound site and literally inserts a copy of a self-replicating DNA strand (called a plasmid) into the plant cells (infection). The plasmid contains genes that code for hormone production that leads to the growth of tumors. These genetically modified grapevine cambium cells begin to grow tumor tissues with poorly organized vascular structure (that is, not capable of adequately conducting resources needed by the vine) at the wound site instead of organized vascular tissues. The injured trunk areas are never properly repaired by functional vascular tissue and as the tumor tissues grow, the trunk becomes more and more non-functional and eventually the vine collapses. And what is the most common cause of widespread grapevine trunk damage in the Northeast? Severe winter cold—which does not occur in most parts of California and similar warm, wine grape production climates.

All is not lost – tips on vineyard renovation

A collapsed vine with healthy roots will throw new shoots from the base of the plant, and these can be used to make new trunks and restore the vine to productive status. Here in the “Great White North” of Erie County, we renovate vines almost every year (Figure 3). Vines “laid low” by crown gall are often capable of being completely restored to productive life. Rather than ripping out your 7 or 10-year-old vineyard and replacing it, it can be more cost-effective to train up new trunks with the potential for a partial crop this year and a full crop in Year 2. An exception to this remedy is when trunks of grafted vines were not hilled with soil in the fall and the base of scions experienced the full force of the severe cold. This can completely kill the scion and leave growers with nothing but the rootstock. In this case, growers may have to start over with new vines, unless there is potential for field grafting of new scion wood. Also, when very young or newly planted vines develop crown gall, it is best to remove the plants, and replace them. The bacterium can be found in roots as well as trunks and can survive for long periods of time (years) in the soil, and it is important to remove all parts of infected plants.

All of us would love to be able to train up one original trunk and rely on that single trunk for every vine, every year. Unfortunately for many in the Northeast, that’s a pipe dream. Now that you know about crown gall in your vineyard, you can assume that more vines are contaminated than you previously thought. For example, we have a Chambourcin vineyard at the North East lab in which just about every vine is host to the crown gall bacterium. I had no idea this was the case until the winter of 2003-2004, when brutal cold caused nearly every vine trunk to explode with crown gall the following spring (Figures 4 and 5). Apparently, nearly every vine was contaminated with the bacterium and the vineyard collapsed! After discussing my conundrum with Dr. Tom Burr at Cornell University, an expert in crown gall biology/pathology, we spent the 2004 season training up new trunks for every vine, using only shoots that originated from below the galls. From 2005 on, the vineyard was enormously productive for almost ten years. Then came the polar vortex of January 2014, followed by the severe winter cold of February 2015, and with it more devastating bouts with crown gall.

crown gall - Penn State University
Collapsed vine following winter cold damage to the trunk (left) and onset of crown gall at the base of the trunk (right). Photo: Penn State University.

Improving your odds that a winter cold event will not lead to complete loss

Growers of V. vinifera in Erie County, PA have pretty much resigned themselves to losses from winter cold and crown gall every few years, and they deal with it in a number of ways. The first way is by growing vines on multiple (2 to 3) trunks. The logic follows that if one or two trunks collapse from crown gall there may still be one trunk that produces a crop and provides some income until new trunks can be groomed to replace the galled/damaged ones. Trunks do not need to be replaced as a matter of regular maintenance, but rather when they become injured and/or diseased. The maintenance of more than one trunk can greatly improve your odds that a winter cold event will not lead to complete loss.

Growers of the hardier French hybrids generally suffer fewer economic down times from winter cold-induced crown gall than growers of V. vinifera. We cannot escape bouts of brutally cold winter weather, but we can (and should) plan for the worst and try to wisely match variety with site in order to minimize or eliminate losses to winter trunk damage and crown gall. Simply put, cultivars of V. vinifera and cold-sensitive hybrids should be planted only on the best sites in Pennsylvania—sites that ensure good cold air drainage during the worst bouts of winter weather. Where a vineyard is already established, vine management that maximizes vine cold hardiness (balanced timely nutrition, effective disease control, proper balance between growth and yield, good weed and water management) is absolutely essential for minimizing trunk damage and the onset of crown gall after a severe winter cold event.

For grafted vines, hilling soil around the graft union in late fall will protect the base of the scion and may ensure that scion bud wood will survive to throw shoots for replacement trunks the following spring. During the following spring, hilled soil should be removed from around the graft to prevent rooting of the scion, which would otherwise defeat the purpose of the rootstock. Although an added expense, this practice is commonplace in many wine growing regions of the Northeast. Farther south and especially in the mid-Atlantic region, many growers have been avoiding this management practice because it represents a substantial added expense, can contribute to erosion on steep sites, and can increase the odds that vines may become mechanically damaged.

Unfortunately, severe cold during the past two winters caused heavy damage to the less favorable variety/site combinations even in parts of southern PA and the mid-Atlantic. Where grafts were not protected, the supply of scion buds that would have provided for new trunks was killed. In such cases, all but the rootstock dies and the vine must be replaced—a much more expensive operation than trunk renewal. So in these more southerly regions, the decision to hill or not, may be less clear. In southern PA, proper variety matched to the site along with multiple trunk maintenance may be sufficient for sustainability. However, on poorer sites that suffer more frequently from a severe winter cold event, annual hilling of grafts may be necessary or a grower may need to rethink his/her established variety/site combination.

As in all matters of farming, growers must weigh the expense of a practice against the magnitude of the consequences for not doing so as well as the odds that he or she will get hit with another severe cold event. The prudent integration of these management practices will help to guarantee that farms can remain sustainable and profitable in the Northeast.

Research in the pipeline

Once contaminated, there is no practical way to rid a vine of the crown gall bacterium. The best long term solution rests with the production of crown gall-free planting stock so that growers can at least start with a clean vine/clean vineyard. To that end, through funding from the National Clean Plant Network, Dr. Tom Burr’s grape research program and others are devoted to the generation of mother vines free of crown gall that can be used to start clean sources of grapevine nursery material.

The emphasis in this effort is the development, and ongoing refinement, of extremely sensitive tests used to detect the presence of the pathogen, in order to determine whether a vine that might be used for propagation is “clean” or contaminated. Clean vine material can then be confidently used to establish grapevine mother blocks that will serve as the foundation of nursery propagation stocks. In turn, the mother blocks and nursery stocks can be continuously monitored for the presence of the bacterium using these same tests. The latest research has indicated that plants free of the crown gall pathogen can be generated but they will need to be assayed periodically to ensure they remain clean.

Remember, however, that the crown gall pathogen, once introduced into a vineyard through contaminated plants, can live in the soil for many years. Therefore, the availability of crown gall free planting stock is not going to end our encounters with this pathogen. Clean planting stock will reduce or help to eliminate the incidence of crown gall in new plantings, but the pathogen will likely always remain present and northeastern growers will still have to manage their vineyards with a view toward minimizing the incidence of crown gall.

Bryan Hed, Penn State University


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