Heat Effects on Vegetable and Fruit Crops

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

With excessive heat being an issue again in 2012, I wanted to reprint an article that I wrote in 2011 about heat effects in vegetable and fruit crops.

The plant temperature at which tissue dies is around 115°F. Normally, plant temperature is just above air temperature. However, plant temperature can rise to a critical level under certain conditions. Plants have 3 major ways in which they dissipate excess heat: 1) long-wave radiation, 2) heat convection into the air and 3) transpiration.

A critical factor is transpiration. If transpiration is interrupted by stomatal closure due to water stress, inadequate water uptake, injury, vascular system plugging or other factors, a major cooling mechanism is lost. Without transpiration, the only way that plants can lose heat is by heat radiation back into the air or wind cooling. Under high temperatures, radiated heat builds up in the atmosphere around leaves, limiting further heat dissipation.

Dry soil conditions start a process that can also lead to excess heating in plants. In dry soils, roots produce Abscisic Acid (ABA). This is transported to leaves and signals to stomate guard cells to close. As stomates close, transpiration is reduced. Without water available for transpiration, plants cannot dissipate much of the heat in their tissues. This will cause internal leaf temperatures to rise.

Vegetables can dissipate a large amount of heat if they are functioning normally. However, in extreme temperatures (high 90s or 100s) there is a large increase the water vapor pressure deficient (dryness of the air). Rapid water loss from the plant in these conditions causes leaf stomates to close, again limiting cooling, and spiking leaf temperatures, potentially to critical levels causing damage or tissue death.

Very hot, dry winds are a major factor in heat buildup in plants. Such conditions cause rapid water loss because leaves will be losing water more quickly than roots can take up water, leading to heat injury. Therefore, heat damage is most prevalent in hot, sunny, windy days from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. when transpiration has been reduced. As the plants close stomates to reduce water loss, leaf temperatures will rise even more. In addition, wind can decrease leaf boundary layer resistance to water movement and cause quick dehydration. Wind can also carry large amounts of advected heat.

Photosynthesis rapidly decreases above 94°F, so high temperatures will limit yields in many vegetables and fruits. While daytime temperatures can cause major heat related problems in plants, high night temperatures have great effects on vegetables, especially fruiting vegetables. The warmer the night temperature, the faster respiration processes. This limits the amount of sugars and other storage products that can go into fruits and developing seeds.

Heat injury in plants includes scalding and scorching of leaves and stems, sunburn on fruits and stems, leaf drop, rapid leaf death, and reduction in growth. Wilting is the major sign of water loss which can lead to heat damage. Plants often will drop leaves or in severe cases will “dry in place” where death is so rapid, abscission layers have not had time to form.

On black plastic mulch, surface temperatures can exceed 150°F. This heat can be radiated and reflected onto vegetables causing tremendous heat loading. This is particularly a problem in young plants that have limited shading of the plastic. This can cause heat lesions just above the plastic. Heat lesions are usually first seen on the south or south-west side of stems.

High heat and associated water uptake issues will cause heat stress problems. As heat stress becomes more severe a series of event occurs in plants starting with a decrease in photosynthesis and increase in respiration. As stress increases, photosynthesis shuts down because closure of stomates stops CO2 capture and increases photo-respiration. This will cause growth inhibition. There will be a major slow-down in transpiration (cooling process loss and internal temperature increase). As stress becomes more severe there will be membrane integrity loss, cell membrane leakage and protein breakdown. Toxins generated through cell membrane releases will cause damage to cellular processes. Finally, if stress is severe enough there can be plant starvation through rapid use of food reserves, inefficient food use, and inability to call on reserves when and where needed.

The major method to reduce heat stress is by meeting evapotranspirational demand with irrigation. Use of overhead watering, sprinkling, and misting can reduce of tissue temperature and lessen water vapor pressure deficit. Mulches can also help greatly. You can increase reflection and dissipation of radiative heat using reflective mulches or use low density, organic mulches such as straw to reduce surface radiation and conserve moisture. In very hot areas of the world, shade cloth is used for partial shading to reduce advected heat and total incoming radiation.

 

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