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Bacterial wilt is attacking tomato plants

Bacterial wilt is one of several wilt diseases that attack members of the Solanaceous plant family. These family members include peppers, potatoes, eggplant and our beloved tomatoes. My week has consisted of consoling heart broken homeowners who wake up to find beautiful tomato plants — loaded with fruit — looking like they had hot water poured on them. Between their sobs, they report that they were fine yesterday and today they are permanently wilted!

Believe me, I feel their pain. As southerners, we cherish our tomatoes. They are a source of pride and fine gifts to share with our neighbors. Bacterial wilt is a cruel disease, normally affecting the plants when the fruit is reaching baseball size — you know the size — perfect for frying.

Bacterial wilt is caused by a soil borne bacterium. A characteristic of this disease, that sets it apart from other wilt diseases, is that plants wilt and die rapidly. Bacteria infect plants through the roots or stem, most often where tissue has been injured by cultivating, or by some other physical means. The bacteria invade the vascular system, causing wilt by gradual blocking of the water conducting vessels.

Bacterial wilt can be diagnosed with a simple test. First, remove the plant from the soil. Rinse the roots and lower stem. Once rinsed, cut a section from the lowest part of the stem, just above the roots, about four inches long. Have a glass jar of water ready so the stem section can be suspended in the water, bottom end down. If you see wispy, cloudy, milky ooze — this is called bacterial streaming.

There isn’t much that can be done for bacterial wilt except to remove and destroy affected plants. Future plantings should be made in a different location. Do not reuse stakes and ties.

I wish I had better news. But, your hunger for a fresh, homegrown tomato can be cured.  Brookhaven Farmer’s Market is open! No one has to know you didn’t grow it! 

Rebecca Bates is an MSU Extension-Lincoln County agent, and can be reached at 601-835-3460 or by e-mail at rebecca.bates@msstate.edu.