Cole Crop Disorders

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

Cole crops, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, and kohlrabi are important fall crops in the region. The following are some common disorders that affect these crops and their causes.

Tipburn of Cauliflower, Cabbage, and Brussels Sprouts
This problem can cause severe economic losses. Tipburn is a breakdown of plant tissue inside the head of cabbage, individual sprouts in Brussels sprouts, and on the inner wrapper leaves of cauliflower. It is a physiological disorder which is associated with an inadequate supply of calcium in the affected leaves, causing a collapse of the tissue and death of the cells. Calcium deficiency may occur where the soil calcium is low or where there is an imbalance of nutrients in the soil along with certain weather conditions. (High humidity, low soil moisture, high potash and high nitrogen aggravate calcium availability). Secondary rot caused by bacteria can follow tipburn and heads of cauliflower can be severely affected. Some cabbage and cauliflower cultivars are relatively free of tipburn problems.

Boron Deficiencies
Cole crops have a high boron requirement. Symptoms of boron deficiency vary with the cole crop. Cabbage heads may simply be small and yellow. Most cole crops develop cracked and corky stems, petioles and midribs. The stems of broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower can be hollow and are sometimes discolored. Cauliflower curds become brown and leaves may roll and curl.

Hollow Stem in Broccoli and Cauliflower Not Caused by Boron Deficiency
This condition starts with gaps that develop in the tissues. These gradually enlarge to create a hollow stem. Ordinarily, there is no discoloration of the surface of these openings at harvest but both discoloration and tissue breakdown may develop soon after harvest. Some cultivars of hybrid cauliflower and broccoli may have openings from the stem into the head. Both plant spacing and the rate of nitrogen affect the incidence of hollow stem. Hollow stem increases with wider spacings and as the rate of nitrogen increases. The incidence of hollow stem can be greatly reduced by increasing the plant population.

Cabbage Splitting
Cabbage splitting is mainly a problem with early cabbage. A problem can develop when moisture stress is followed by heavy rain. The rapid growth rate associated with rain, high temperatures and high fertility cause the splitting. Proper irrigation may help prevent splitting and there are significant differences between cultivars in their susceptibility to this problem. Splitting may also be partially avoided by deep cultivation to break some of the plant roots.

Cauliflower and Broccoli Buttoning
Buttoning is the premature formation of a head and because the head forms early in the plant’s life, the leaves are not large enough to nourish the curd to a marketable size. Buttoning may occur shortly after planting in the field, when normal plants of the same age should be growing vegetatively. Losses are usually most severe when transplants have gone past the juvenile stage before setting in the field. Stress factors such as low soil nitrogen, low soil moisture, disease, insects, or micronutrient deficiencies can also cause this problem. Some cultivars, particularly early ones, are more susceptible to buttoning than others.

Lack of Heads in Broccoli and Cauliflower
During periods of extremely warm weather (days over 86°F and nights 77°F) broccoli and cauliflower can remain vegetative (does not head) since they do not receive enough cold for head formation. This can cause a problem in scheduling the marketing of even volumes of crop.

Cauliflower Blanching and Off Colors
The market demands cauliflower which is pure white or pale cream in color. Heads exposed to sunlight develop a yellow and/or red to purple pigment. Certain varieties such as Snow Crown are more susceptible to purple off-colors, especially in hot weather. Self-blanching varieties have been developed to reduce problems with curd yellowing. For open headed varieties, the usual method to exclude light is to tie the outer leaves when the curd is 8 cm in diameter. Leaves may also be broken over the curd to prevent yellowing. In hot weather blanching may take 3 to 4 days, but in cool weather, 8 to 12 days or more may be required. Cauliflower fields scheduled to mature in cool weather (September and October) that are well supplied with water and planted with “self-blanching” cultivars will not need tieing. Newer orange cauliflower and green broccoflower varieties are being planted. They are less susceptible to off-colors but still can develop purpling under warm conditions.

Cauliflower Ricing
“Riciness” and “fuzziness” in heads is caused by high temperatures, exposure to direct sun, too rapid growth after the head is formed, high humidity, or high nitrogen. “Ricing” is where the flower buds develop, elongate and separate, making the curd unmarketable.

Development of Curd Bracts in Cauliflower
Curd bracts or small green leaves between the segments of the curd in cauliflower is caused by too high of temperature or drought. High temperatures cause a reversion to vegetative growth with production of bracts on the head. In a marketable cauliflower head, the individual flower buds are undeveloped and undifferentiated.

Loose Heads in Cauliflower and Premature Flowering in Broccoli
Loosely formed curds in cauliflower can be due to any stress that slows growth making them small or open. Fluctuating temperatures and moisture will also cause less compact growth. In contrast, excess vegetative growth caused by excessive nitrogen can also cause loose heads in cauliflower and broccoli. Premature flowering and open heads in broccoli can be brought on by high temperatures.

Edema on Cole Crop Leaves
Edema is water blistering on cole crop leaves. The most common cause of edema is the presence of abundant, warm soil water and a cool, moist atmosphere. Under these conditions the roots absorb water at a rate faster than is lost through transpiration. Excess water accumulates in the leaf, some parenchyma cells enlarge and block the stomatal openings through which water vapor is normally released from the plant; thereby contributing to further water retention in the leaf. If this condition persists, the enlarged cells divide, differentiate a cork cambium, and develop elongate cork cells externally to form a periderm. The rupture of the epidermis by the enlarged inner cells and the periderm account for the raised, crusty appearance of older edema spots.

Black Petiole
Black petiole or black midrib is an internal disorder of cabbage that has been occasionally noted in recent years. As heads approach maturity, the back side of the internal leaf petioles or midribs turn dark gray or black at or near the point where the midrib attaches to the core. The affected area may be quite limited or may extend for 2 or 3 inches along the midrib. It is believed that this disorder is associated with a potassium (K)-phosphorus (P) imbalance and results when the K level in the soil is low and the P concentration high. High rates of nitrogen may contribute to the problem. Probably, as in the case with tipburn, black petiole is a complex physiological disorder in which environmental conditions play an important role in symptom expression. Variety evaluation trials have shown that there are differences in degree of susceptibility between varieties.

Floret (Bead) Yellowing in Broccoli
The florets are the most perishable part of the broccoli head; yellowing may be due to overmaturity at harvest, high storage temperatures after harvest, and/or exposure to ethylene. Any development of yellow beads ends commercial marketability. Bead yellowing due to senescence should not be confused with the yellow to light-green color of areas of florets not exposed to light during growth, sometimes called “marginal yellowing”.

Brown Floret (Bead) in Broccoli
This is a disorder in which areas of florets do not develop correctly, die and lead to brown discolored areas. This is thought to be caused by plant nutritional imbalances but also may be due to feeding damage on florets from insects such as harlequin bugs.

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