Left by Leafhoppers

I’m a tolerant sort towards insects in the garden. Insects get a bad rap, but many are good guys-n-gals and fulfill important roles in the ecosystem. Other insects are meh–not necessarily anyone’s favorites, but not problematic, either. A very few insects are monsters and no gardener wants to see the beasts messing up their slice of paradise. I’ll squish aphids if they’re covering foliage but I don’t use insecticides at all. When I garden for vegetables (a rare thing these days), I’ll spray water on plants to knock off aphids or other sucking insects, but most of my veggie garden problems come from birds and squirrels; they like their veggies, too, one bite at a time.

Because I prefer native perennials and shrubs, as well as non-native plants who’ve proven their worth in the challenging conditions of Central Texas, I don’t have many malevolent insects wreaking havoc on beloved plants. That is until this spring.

Along with all the other weird things that 2021 has delivered to my garden, it’s finally also experienced damage due to some naughty bugs and the bad germs they carry and spread.

I love Purple Coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea. I don’t grow quite as many as I once did, due to shady conditions because these cheery aster plants are sun lovers! But I still have some and enjoy the beauty they bring to the garden.

Coneflowers are a favorite among the pollinators and frequently have one in attendance.

Grey Hairstreak, Strymon melinus nectaring on a Purple Coneflower

My native coneflowers bloom from April until July, turning crispy and dropping seed during the hot summer months. Once they’re tired and worn out, I prune the plants to their base foliage and await the fall bloom, which is less dramatic, but very welcome.

Recently, I was observing some pollinator action and taking photos of this charming group of coneflowers, when I noticed an oddity.

Some of my coneflower sported leafy green hats!

Other mini-leaves covered the whole of the central globe, hiding the bracts where coneflower seeds develop. Also, the lavender rays were weird, short and misshapen.

As I looked at groups of coneflowers in other parts of the garden, I found more crazy coneflowers. Some had no purple or pink to them, they were all green: green centers, green rays, and a few green, strangely shaped leaves. The diseased plants were all shorter than the healthy coneflowers.

This discovery of individual bizarre coneflowers rang a botanical bell for me, though I’d never seen this kind of growth before in my garden. I recognized (from some reading, sometime in the past) that the deformed coneflowers were victims of a disease process and recalled that it is one brought on by an insect.

As I researched the problem, I came across the term Aster Yellows, and remembered reading other gardeners who’d removed their aster plants (not necessarily coneflowers) because of this disease. Removing the diseased plant is the only recourse and those plants shouldn’t be placed in compost, but disguarded from the garden completely.

Leafhoppers are common in my garden and I would normally place them in the meh category of insects; they’re around, but don’t present much of a problem. It seems that leafhoppers survived our February snowpocalypse and in early spring, at least a few of those leafhoppers carrying a mycoplasma engaged in some munching on the emerging coneflower plants. The mycoplasma which causes the unusual growth is spread by the leafhoppers feeding on the plants. Fortunately, only a few individual plants were impacted. You can see one in this photo at the base of a gloriously healthy plant.

Coneflowers are in the Asteraceae or Aster family, but many kinds of plants are affected by this mycoplasma disease process. According to Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, Texas Plant Disease Handbook, Aster Yellows impacts 300 different species of plants, from over 40 different families of plants.

I haven’t seen any more obvious problems with my remaining coneflowers (or any other plants), but it’s likely that next spring this issue may appear again. I’ll be quicker at diagnosing and removing the sick plants now that I’m aware that my garden could be hosting the insects and their germs.

Because of the devastating February freeze, a large shade tree died in my front garden and it will be removed in late fall. As well, my Red Oak trees in the back garden have also suffered some freeze damage; less foliage means more sun in my back garden. I’m sorry about the trees–trees are life giving entities–but more sun will mean more coneflowers in the garden. I just hope they’re all healthy next year and will continue to provide for food pollinators and joy for the gardener.

Coyote Cloudywing, Achalarus toxeus, resting on the rays of a Coneflower

15 thoughts on “Left by Leafhoppers

  1. Sorry about that Tina, it isn’t always beer and skittles in the garden, is it? 😉 I’ve had this happen to mine, but I also get a kind of worm that burrows into the seed head with telltale brown frass on the outside. I’ve yet to figure out what moth/fly lays the eggs and if they are bird food. I can tolerate some, but not all, if they benefit the food chain somehow. I always think of Gilda Radner’s line: “It’s always something!”

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    • It makes me wonder if the freeze somehow triggered…something? It’s odd that after so many years of coneflower growing, all of a sudden, this wackiness is a thing. Sorry about your Bottle Brush, always a shame to lose a tree.

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  2. Wow, I had not heard of aster yellow in a very long time, perhaps since the 1980s. I still have not experienced it, but only remember hearing about it in school because, in the past, it was significant problem for the cut flower industry. I do not know why it is not such a problem now. The cut flowers that I remember are not susceptible to it, so perhaps those that were grown prior were susceptible. Chrysanthemums were more popular prior to the 1980s. Nowadays, the cut flower industry is no longer so prominent here.

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    • It’s new to me and I’m not thrilled about it. I hope that there isn’t a reoccurrence, but I’ll have to be vigilant about keeping an eye out for it going forward.

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  3. If I’d come across an isolated group of the green flowers, I’m not sure I would have recognized them as diseased. Maybe I’ve been exposed to too many artificially colored flowers in grocery store floral departments. On the other hand, the certainly don’t look like anything I’ve come across before. It does make sense that the freeze might have triggered some unusual responses. Everyone around here is talking about the massively blooming crepe myrtles, and the Indian paintbrush seem to be arriving for a second go-round near the coast.

    In any event, at least you’ve seen and identified it, and can watch for it. Tell those leaf hoppers to hop somewhere else!

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    • I’ve already shaken my finger at the leafhoppers, but we’ll see what they do! The coneflowers do look like those awful fake colored flowers that you see in floral departments–ick!

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  4. I removed all my Echinaceas years ago because of Aster Yellows. it was a bummer. Fortunately it never spread to other members of the Aster family. Just recently I was sent a free new Echinacea cultivar by a grower and planted it. It is disease-free so far. Anyway, you have my sympathies.

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    • I remember you writing about your experience, but I didn’t remember that your diseased plants were Echinacea. I’m hoping this is a fluke, but realistic that it might be the harbinger of things to come.

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  5. As a gardener, your concern about the microplasma is understandable. As a photograph, I’d revel in those bizarre echinaceas with green sprouting from their central disks. It’d be similar to the fascination of fasciation.

    Speaking of February’s snowpocalypse, I haven’t seen a single huisache tree that survived, including the one over by you at Foster Ln. and Shoal Creek Blvd. Have you found any huisaches that are still alive?

    The coyote cloudywing is new to me. Is that an uncommon venturer into our territory?

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    • The wonky blooms are very interesting, that’s for sure. I was enjoying them, but remembered that there was something bad, very bad, about them.

      I hadn’t noticed about the huisache, which is embarrassing because I frequently ride by the gorgeous one on Foster. I guess I’m keeping an eye on the road–and the Austin drivers. I’ll look at in the next time I’m on Foster. That’s too bad, they’re lovely trees. My Retama came back from its roots; we still need to prune the dead limbs. They’re tall, but we have an extended saw and pruner. I just need to make sure The Hub doesn’t prune where my Rough-leaf dogwood is. I won’t be happy if its pretty shape is damaged.

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  6. Tina I’m very sorry that your divine purple coneflowers have been affected some specimens by the microplasm of the leafhoppers and you have had to uproot them. I am also very sorry that your wonderful Red Oak trees are without so much foliage and a little sick from the terrible cold snap of Winter. I am also very sorry for the death of your great tree, it is a shame to lose a living being. Now you have less shade in the backyard and more coneflowers. Tina I have bad news for you. On July 7, the floor below mine caught fire, being totally destroyed. It was around 4:00 p.m. and I realized because I was in my room sitting at my table next to the window and I started to smell smoke, I looked out the window and there was a young man and I asked him where the smoke came from and he told me of the house below. I screamed at him to call the fire department! I yelled at my mother that there was a fire downstairs (we live on the first floor) while she closed all the windows in the house because smoke entered that you couldn’t breathe. We took the bags and some towels soaked in water for our mouths and with the whole house full of unbreathable smoke we went down the smoky stairs to the street, where the police and all the neighbors of the building were already. We moved away from the building so as not to inhale smoke and with a neighbor we sat on a very high sidewalk that served as a bench. While the firefighters and ambulances arrived. We were on the street for more than two hours. And three until a firefighter accompanied us to go up to the house and he opened the door about 50 cm and slammed it down from the black smoke that our house had that you couldn’t see anything. The firefighters brought up extractors to my house and spent more than half an hour removing all the smoke from the house. They did the CO2 measurement and it gave 0. We went back up to the house with the fireman and he told us to have everything open to ventilate. My mother and I were wearing our masks, as it is mandatory for COVID, and the whole house stank of soot and smoke. All black: furniture, floor, tables, kitchen, bathroom, curtains, plants, beds, pictures, ….. EVERYTHING. HORROROUS SMELL OF SMOKE AND SOOT. We gave part to our insurance and they are taking care of the cleaning but very badly and they are going to paint the whole house. This weekend we have been cleaning my mother and I to exhaustion. Without any guilt we are going through hell: my mother is ill with a very rare disease that she cannot make efforts and I cannot do it either because I have the entire backbone of evil. To top it off, yesterday the 13th I was vaccinated against COVID with Jansen and he gave me a reaction 8 minutes after being vaccinated and they had to attend to me where I was vaccinated, my Health Center and I am now with a fever and malaise. I thank God that nothing happened to my mother and me with the fire and that the house is fine even though it is full of smoke and charcoal. Thank you God. I do not wish it to anyone. Tina I don’t know when I’m going to write to you again, because with the mess at home I don’t have time. Seeing your divine coneflowers has raised my spirits a lot, I love them. I hope that you and Bee Daddy are in very good health and that your back is improving. Take care. Hugs from my Mother and mine. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita.

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    • What thing to happen! First, I’m glad you and your mother are safe. It will be lots of work to clean and fix up your home, but at least you weren’t injured.

      I know you feel bad after the vaccination, but it’s brief and you’ll most likely feel better tomorrow. As well, in two weeks time, you’ll have a good deal of immunity to covid.

      Take care. No worries about writing, you do what you need to do for yourself and your mother. Please take good care, Margarita.

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      • Tina, thank you very much for your words of encouragement and understanding: you are a good friend. Yes, the most important thing is that my Mother and I are safe, and I am already well from the COVID vaccine. Next week they come to paint the whole house, it will be a mess because we have not yet been able to clean all the shelves full of books, especially in my room. But we have decided to take it easy and gradually it will be cleaned up, as the painters progress, because they have said that they have at least a whole week working from 9:00 to 18:00 taking an hour to eat. The bad thing is that it will be very hot, close to 40º C until next Friday, and my mother and I feel very bad, especially my dear mother. But we will have to put up with it and carry it as best as possible. Tina I promise you that I will take very good care of my mother and me. Take care of yourself. Hugs. Very affectionate greetings from Margarita.

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