Sunburn in Fruits and Fruiting Vegetables

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

High temperatures, clear skies and high light radiation, and long daylengths are a recipe for developing sunburn in fruits and fruiting vegetables. We commonly see sunburn in watermelons, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, apples, strawberries, and brambles (raspberries and blackberries).

There are three types of sunburn which may have effects on the fruit. The first, sunburn necrosis, is where skin, peel, or fruit tissue dies on the sun exposed side of the fruit. Cell membrane integrity is lost in this type of sunburn and cells start leaking their contents. The critical fruit tissue temperature for sunburn necrosis varies with type of fruit. For cucumbers research has shown that the fruit skin temperature threshold for sunburn necrosis is 100 to 104°F; for peppers, the threshold is 105 to 108°F, and for apples the critical fruit skin temperature is 125-127 °F. Fruits with sunburn necrosis are not marketable.

The second type of sunburn injury is sunburn browning. This sunburn does not cause tissue death but does cause loss of pigmentation resulting in a yellow, bronze, or brown spot on the sun exposed side of the fruit. Cells remain alive, cell membranes retain their integrity, cells do not leak, but pigments such as chlorophyll, carotenes, and xanthophylls are denatured or destroyed. This type of sunburn browning occurs at a temperature about 5°F lower than sunburn necrosis (115 to 120° F in apples). Light is required for sunburn browning. Fruits may be marketable but will be a lower grade.

The third type of sunburn is photooxidative sunburn. This is where shaded fruit are suddenly exposed to sunlight as might occur with late pruning, after storms where leaf cover is suddenly lost, or when vines are turned in drive rows. In this type of sunburn, the fruits will become photobleached by the excess light because the fruit is not acclimatized to high light levels, and fruit tissue will die. This bleaching will occur at much lower fruit temperatures than the other types of sunburn.

Genetics also play a role in sunburn and some varieties are more susceptible to sunburn. Varieties with darker colored fruit, those with more open canopies, and those with more open fruit clusters have higher risk of sunburn. Some varieties have other genetic properties that predispose them to sunburn, for example, some blackberries are more susceptible to fruit damage from UV light.

Control of sunburn in fruits starts with developing good leaf cover in the canopy to shade the fruit. Fruits most susceptible to sunburn will be those that are most exposed, especially those that are not shaded in the afternoon. Anything that reduces canopy cover will increase sunburn, such as foliar diseases, wilting due to inadequate irrigation, and excessive or late pruning. Physiological leaf roll, common in some solanaceous crops such as tomato, can also increase sunburn.

In crops with large percentages of exposed fruits at risk of sunburn, fruits can be protected by artificial shading using shade cloth (10-30% shade). However, this is not practical for large acreages. For sunburn protection at a field scale, use of film spray-on materials can reduce or eliminate sunburn. Many of these materials are Kaolin clay based and leave a white particle film on the fruit (such as Surround, Screen Duo, and many others). There are also film products that protect fruits from sunburn but do not leave a white residue, such as Raynox. Apply these materials at the manufacturer’s rates for sunburn protection. They may have to be reapplied after heavy rains or multiple overhead irrigation events.

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