Normally we think of rust as something that deteriorates metal, but a number of different fungal rusts can affect plants in the garden.  Rust disease can affect corn plants, cedar trees, and even blueberry bushes.  Just like the broad range of plant species that can be plagued by rust, there are a number of species of rust fungal spores floating around and ready to infest your garden.  This article will focus on leaf rust of blueberry.

Blueberry rust on top of a leaf.

Blueberry leaf rust on the top of a leaf. Photo Credit: Philip Harmon, University of Florida/IFAS Extension.

Leaf rust of blueberry in Florida is caused by the fungus Pucciniastrum vaccinii.  Although the common name of the disease is “leaf rust”, the disease can also infect the stems and fruit of blueberry plants.  The disease causes small, round spots visible on the tops of leaves.  Spots will multiply and the leaves will eventually yellow and fall off.  Young stems and green fruit can also become infected as the disease progresses.  Bright orange lesions will form on stems and fruit as the thousands of microscopic spores conjoin.  The clusters of spores are easily wiped or washed off of plant material.  When spores dry out, they become airborne and can be transferred to nearby plants.

Blueberry leaf rust on fruit.

Blueberry leaf rust on fruit. Photo Credit: Philip Harmon, University of Florida/IFAS Extension

The rust fungus thrives in hot, humid, wet conditions.  A number of cultural practices can be adopted to reduce disease progression and survival.

  • Irrigation

    Disease persistence can be reduced by limiting the amount of water that contacts the plant leaves.  Water the base of plants or install drip irrigation for your bushes rather than watering from overhead.  If overhead irrigation is the only option, then water plants in the morning rather than in the evening.  This allows the leaves to dry out over the course of the day.

  • Pruning

    Removal of approximately 25% of the oldest canes in late winter before spring growth begins will stimulate the production of new canes and should result in plants with canes of different ages and will provide a good mix of vigorous branching and fruit production.  Moderate summer pruning can also improve yield and shoot growth. When pruning, cut out vigorous shoots that are growing well beyond the desired canopy height and are in the interior portion of the bush.  This will promote a more open growth habit and help with air circulation on the remaining plant material.  Some vigorous canes developing from the ground and growing on the outside of the bush can be topped to stimulate branching and flower bud formation.

  • Mulch

    Pine bark mulch helps with establishment of young plants and helps keep soil pH low in existing plantings.  A layer of aged pine bark 3 inches deep extending about 2 feet out from the plants will provide a good growing medium for surface feeder roots.  Pine straw can be used if pine bark is unavailable.  Mulch also moderates soil temperature, helps keep weeds at bay, and adds organic matter to the soil.  Make sure to keep mulch raked back about three inches away from the plant canes to provide good air circulation to the roots.

Hopefully this article has given you some tips to have a good blueberry crop for years to come.  For more information on growing blueberries in Florida, please visit the University of Florida/IFAS EDIS Publication: Blueberry Gardener’s Guide.