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Publication #PP-222

Lethal Yellowing (LY) of Palm1

Nigel A. Harrison and Monica L. Elliott2

Summary

  • Lethal yellowing (LY) is a systemic disease caused by a phytoplasma transmitted by a planthopper.

  • Historically, LY has occurred only in the southern one-third of Florida. The disease was observed for the first time in Sarasota and Manatee Counties on the west coast of Florida in 2007 and in Indian River County on the east coast in 2012.

  • LY symptoms are highly variable among Cocos nucifera (coconut) cultivars and among other palm genera.

  • Palms with greater than 25% leaf discoloration or a dead apical meristem (bud) due to LY should be removed.

  • Management of LY includes trunk injections of oxytetracycline HCl (OTC) every four months, and planting of palm species that are not hosts of LY.

  • Very few palm species native to Florida and the Caribbean Basin appear to be susceptible to LY.

Introduction

Lethal yellowing (LY) is a palm disease prevalent in Florida landscapes in the southern one-third of the state. In 2007, the disease was observed in Sarasota and Manatee Counties on the west coast of Florida, counties where it had not been observed previously. In 2012, the disease was observed in Indian River County on the east coast of Florida. LY is also observed in field nurseries. This disease has significantly reduced the number of tall-type Cocos nucifera (coconut) in Florida and the Caribbean Basin, and localized outbreaks continue to occur.

Pathogen and Hosts

LY is caused by a phytoplasma, an unculturable cell wall-less bacterium. The phytoplasma has been classified as a member of group 16S rDNA RFLP group 16SrIV, subgroup A (16SrIV-A). The proposed name for the pathogen is 'Candidatus Phytoplasma palmae'.

It is spread by the planthopper Haplaxius (Myndus) crudus, a common planthopper in southern Florida. The phytoplasma is a systemic pathogen that is found only in the phloem tissue (vascular tissue transporting photosynthates) of palms. It is not known to survive outside either its plant or insect hosts. The planthopper is a piercing and sucking insect, meaning it feeds on the contents of the plant host vascular system, including the phloem. The insect moves the phytoplasma from palm to palm as it moves during its feeding cycles.

Until recently, the geographic range of LY in Florida was limited to the subtropical southern one-third of the state. The recent spread of the disease beyond its historic range in Florida may be a consequence of mild winters during the last decade, allowing Haplaxius crudus to spread further north.

At least 37 palm species have been documented with LY (Table 1).

Another palm disease caused by a phytoplasma that is similar to, but genetically distinct from, the LY phytoplasma was observed in 2007 on Phoenix canariensis, P. dactylifera and P. sylvestris growing in the south-central coastal region of west Florida (Sarasota to Tampa). The symptoms and management of this disease, called Texas Phoenix Palm Decline, on Phoenix species appear to be the same as those for LY. See http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pp163 for further information on this disease.

Symptoms

As with any disease, diagnosis is based on a series of symptoms. Furthermore, no single symptom is diagnostic of LY. Rather, it is the appearance and chronological progression of symptoms that accurately identifies the disease. The difficulty with LY diagnosis is that symptoms vary according to the palm species, and in the case of coconuts, the particular cultivar involved.

Fruit drop and flower necrosis

The first obvious symptom on mature palms (those able to produce fruit) is a premature drop of most or all fruits. For coconuts, the calyx (stem) end of the fruit will usually have a brown to black, water-soaked appearance (Figure 1). Next, inflorescence (flower) necrosis (death) develops. Normally light yellow to creamy white in color, emerging flower spikelets are instead partially or totally blackened. Male flowers abscise from flower spikelets and no fruit is set. These symptoms will only be observed if the palm is flowering or fruiting when the disease develops.

Boron deficiency in coconut will also cause premature nut drop. However, nuts dropped due to boron deficiency will not have the discolored, water-soaked appearance at the calyx (stem) end of the nut (Figure 1).

Figure 1. 

Fruits that prematurely dropped from Cocos nucifera due to Lethal Yellowing. Note dark, water-soaked calyx (stem) end.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Foliage discoloration

For tall-type coconut cultivars, the next symptom is a yellowing of the foliage, beginning with the lowest (oldest) leaves and progressing upward through the crown (Figure 2). In some cases, this symptom is seen as a solitary, yellowed leaf (“flag leaf”) in the middle of the leaf canopy (Figure 3). Typically, yellowed leaves remain turgid, but eventually turn brown, desiccate and hang down forming a skirt around the trunk for several weeks before falling (Figure 3).

Figure 2. 

Foliar yellowing symptoms of Cocos nucifera due to Lethal Yellowing.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 3. 

'Jamaica Tall' Cocos nucifera on left is exhibiting Lethal Yellowing symptoms of solitary, yellowed leaf ("flag leaf") in middle of canopy plus dead leaves hanging down around trunk.


Credit: T.K. Broschat
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Foliar discoloration varies markedly among coconut cultivars and other palm genera. For most tall-type coconut cultivars, leaves turn a golden yellow before dying, while on dwarf cultivars, leaves generally turn a reddish to grayish-brown (Figures 4 and 5). Leaflets on the green form of the 'Malayan Dwarf' cultivar may be folded around the midvein. Affected leaves appear noticeably flaccid rather than turgid, giving an overall wilted appearance to the palm canopy (Figure 4), but this is not a consistent symptom.

Figure 4. 

Green form of 'Malayan Dwarf' Cocos nucifera with Lethal Yellowing exhibiting discoloration of leaves (grayish-brown rather than yellow) and overall wilted appearance.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 5. 

'Maypan' Cocos nucifera with Lethal Yellowing exhibiting discoloration of leaves (grayish-brown rather than yellow).


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Foliar yellowing develops on such species as Caryota mitis (clustering fishtail palm) (Figure 6), C. rumphiana (Figure 7), Chelyocarpus chuco, Corypha elata, Dictyospermum album (hurricane or princess palm), Hyophorbe verschaffeltii (spindle palm) (Figure 8), Livistona chinensis (Chinese fan palm) (Figure 9), Pritchardia spp., and Trachycarpus fortunei (windmill palm).

Figure 6. 

Foliar yellowing symptoms of Lethal Yellowing on Caryota mitis.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 7. 

Foliar yellowing symptoms of Lethal Yellowing on Caryota rumphiana.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 8. 

Foliar yellowing symptoms of Lethal Yellowing on Hyophorbe verschaffeltii.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 9. 

Foliar yellowing symptoms of Lethal Yellowing on Livistona chinensis.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

For other palm species, such as Adonidia merrillii (Christmas palm), Borassus flabellifer (palmyra palm) (Figure 10), Dypsis decaryi (Triangle palm) (Figure 11), Phoenix spp. (Canary Island date palm, date palm, wild date palm) (Figures 12, 13 & 14), and Veitchia arecina (Montgomery palm), successively younger leaves turn varying shades of reddish-brown to dark brown or gray rather than a distinctive yellow.

Figure 10. 

Foliar browning symptoms of Lethal Yellowing on Borassus flabellifer.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 11. 

Foliar browning symptoms of Lethal Yellowing on Dypsis decaryi.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 12. 

Foliar browning symptoms of Lethal Yellowing on Phoenix dactylifera.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 13. 

Foliar browning symptoms of Lethal Yellowing on Phoenix sylvestris.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 14. 

Foliar browning symptoms of Lethal Yellowing on Phoenix reclinata.


Credit: N.A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Death of the apical meristem (bud)

As foliage discoloration advances up through the crown (canopy), the spear (youngest) leaf collapses and hangs down in the crown. This indicates the apical meristem (bud or growing point of the palm) has died.

For most palm species, including coconuts, death of the apical meristem usually occurs when one-half to two-thirds of the crown has become yellow or brown. However, for Phoenix species and Borassus flabellifer, spear leaf collapse and death of the apical meristem occurs when one-third or less of the crown has become discolored (Figure 15). For Adonidia and Veitchia, the spear is usually unaffected until after all other leaves have died.

Figure 15. 

Collapsed spear leaf of Phoenix sylvestris is hanging down from crown (see arrow). Once this spear leaf breaks off or falls from the crown, it is not readily apparent that the apical meristem (bud) has died.


Credit: N. A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Eventually, the entire crown of the palm withers and topples, leaving a bare trunk standing (Figure 16). Infected palms usually die within 3 to 5 months after the first appearance of symptoms.

Figure 16. 

Death of Cocos nucifera apical meristem (bud) from Lethal Yellowing causes crown to wither and topple from trunk.


Credit: N. A. Harrison
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Diagnosis

The plant symptoms described above are relied upon to make the initial field diagnosis. Since the phytoplasma is not culturable, a molecular diagnostic test is used to confirm the presence of the pathogen. If pathogen confirmation is necessary, contact your local county Extension office -- http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/map -- for information on sample submission and cost of laboratory diagnosis. This information is also available on the website for the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center -- http://flrec.ifas.ufl.edu/pdfs/LY-TPPD-Trunk-Sampling.pdf.

Disease Management

Chemical control of LY is achieved by application of the antibiotic oxytetracycline HCl (often referred to as OTC) administered to palms by liquid injection into the trunk. The primary source of this EPA-registered product is Tree Saver®, and it is for distribution and use only in Florida. Please read and follow label directions. The website for the company provides helpful hints for successful use of this product.

As a therapeutic measure, systemic treatment on a 4-month treatment schedule should begin as early in symptom expression as possible. Symptomatic palms with >25% discolored leaves should be removed, since they are unlikely to respond to OTC treatment. For susceptible Phoenix species, if the apical meristem (bud) is already dead, the palm will not respond to OTC treatment.

The antibiotic can also be used preventively to protect palms when LY is known to occur in the area. The amount recommended depends on the size of the treated palm. Always follow directions for use on the label.

The one question often asked regarding OTC injections concerns the length of time one must continue to inject. Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer. The antibiotic does not necessarily kill the phytoplasma but simply reduces or suppresses the phytoplasma population in the palm to a level that is no longer harmful, allowing resumption of normal growth of the palm. If injections are stopped, it is possible the phytoplasma will begin to increase once again and symptoms will reappear on the palm. Alternatively, if the disease is still active in the area, the unprotected palm could be re-infected with the phytoplasma.

Disease management via control of planthopper populations is insufficient to justify repeated insecticide applications in landscapes. Planthoppers are flying insects, and they also can be blown around by wind.

Use of host palm resistance represents the most practical long-term solution for LY control.

Coconut cultivars, such as the 'Malayan Dwarf' or hybrid 'Maypan' (Malayan Dwarf x Panama Tall), have exhibited acceptable levels of resistance in most areas. However, recent reports of LY losses in 'Malayan Dwarf' and 'Maypan' of 70% and 83%, respectively, at localized sites in southeastern Florida and 95-99% for these cultivars in Jamaica cast doubt on the long-term resistance of these cultivars.

Many palm species are apparently not susceptible to LY and so provide important alternative choices for ornamental landscape plantings. To date, LY has not been reported on most palm species native to Florida or regions of the Caribbean Basin where LY has been active. These include Sabal palmetto (cabbage palm), Roystonea regia (royal palm), Acoelorraphe wrightii (Paurotis or Everglades palm), and Thrinax species (thatch palms).

Selected References

  • Broschat, T. K, N. A. Harrison, and H. Donselman. 2002. Losses to lethal yellowing cast doubt on coconut cultivar resistance. Palms 46:185-189.

  • Harrison, N. A., I. Cordova, P. Richardson, and R. DiBonito. 1999. Detection and diagnosis of lethal yellowing. Pages 183-196 in: Current Advances in Coconut Biotechnology. C. Oropeza, J. L. Verdeil, G. R. Ashburner, R. Cardeña, and J. M. Santamaría, eds. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

  • Harrison, N. A., and P. Jones. 2004. Lethal yellowing. Pages 39-41 in: Compendium of Ornamental Palm Diseases and Disorders. M. L. Elliott, T. K. Broschat, J. Y. Uchida, and G. W. Simone, eds. American Phytopathological Society, St. Paul, MN.

  • Howard, F. W. 1992. Lethal yellowing susceptibility of date palms in Florida. Principes 36:217-222.

  • Howard, F. W., R. C. Norris, and D. L. Thomas. 1983. Evidence of transmission of palm lethal yellowing agent by a planthopper, Myndus crudus (Homoptera, Cixiidae). Tropical Agriculture, Trinidad. 60:168-171.

  • McCoy, R. E. 1975. Effect of oxytetracycline dose and stage of disease development on remission of lethal yellowing in coconut palm. Plant Disease 59:717-720.

  • McCoy, R. E. 1982. Use of tetracycline antibiotics to control yellows diseases. Plant Disease 66:539-542.

Tables

Table 1. 

Palm species susceptible to Lethal Yellowing (LY) disease*

Adonidia merrillii

Dictyosperma album

Phoenix reclinata

Aiphanes lindeniana

Dypsis cabadae

Phoenix rupicola

Allagoptera arenaria

Dypsis decaryi

Phoenix sylvestris

Arenga engleri

Gaussia attenuata

Pritchardia affinis

Borassus flabellifer

Howea belmoreana

Pritchardia pacifica

Caryota mitis

Howea forsteriana

Pritchardia remota

Caryota rumphiana

Hyophorbe verschaffeltii

Pritchardia thurstonii

Chelyocarpus chuco

Latania lontaroides

Ravenea hildebrantii

Cocos nucifera

Livistona chinensis

Syagrus schizophylla

Copernicia alba

Livistona rotundifolia

Trachycarpus fortunei

Corypha taliera

Nannorrhops ritchiana

Veitchia arecina

Crysophila warsecewiczii

Phoenix canariensis

 

Cyphophoenix nucele

Phoenix dactylifera

 

*These are the palm species in which the LY phytoplasma has been detected in symptomatic palms.

Footnotes

1.

This document is PP-222, one of a series of the Plant Pathology Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date October 2005. Revised August 2012. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Nigel A. Harrison, associate professor, Department of Plant Pathology; Monica L. Elliott, professor, Department of Plant Pathology; Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center--Ft. Lauderdale, FL; Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

The use of trade names in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing specific information. UF/IFAS does not guarantee or warranty the products named, and references to them in this publication does not signify our approval to the exclusion of other products of suitable composition. All chemicals should be used in accordance with directions on the manufacturer's label.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.