Kokua Line

By June Watanabe

Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Plants hurt by fungus
may need more water

Question: I have this white fungus spreading in the ground. I have tried this multipurpose fungicide-pesticide weedkiller, but I cannot get rid of this fungus. It clings to the root of the croton plant and the root of the mondo grass and is gradually killing the grass. Is there any way to exterminate this fungus?

Answer: We first called the Urban Garden Center in Pearl City, a handy source of botanical knowledge which is part of the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

The center's help line - 453-6055 or 453-6056 - is staffed by volunteers, all master gardeners versed in the various plants and trained in integrated pest management as well as related problems, such as with fertilizers, watering, etc.

But because yours was a "trickier" problem, dealing with a fungus rather than a crawling pest, we were referred to Desmond Ogata, a plant specialist in diseases, also with the College of Tropical Agriculture.

Based on your description, Ogata said the fungus is probably just part of a natural process in which your plants and grass were already weakened or stressed because of the general lack of water statewide the past year.

He explained it this way: Fungi usually appear when there is a lot of "incorporated organic matter," such as compost or, after a tree dies, dead roots, in the soil.

Something has to break down the undecayed material in the soil, and most often it's the fungi.

"It's a natural process to break down organic material," Ogata said.

Generally, these microorganisms don't attack healthy plants. "But possibly, if the plants are distressed from other conditions and their roots are already weakened, then the fungi can move onto them."

Fungicides, Ogata said, won't help much. He tries to focus instead "on what might be causing the plant to either stress or get weakened."

In the case of Hawaii gardeners, "a lot of plants around the state are just totally water-exhausted," he said. In fact, "a tremendous" number of people have been calling in to say they are losing normally healthy, strong plants like crotons, panex and mock orange, he said.

Since you did not indicate where you live, Ogata suggested seeing if your plants might just be under stress for lack of water. If that's the case, increasing water will probably rejuvenate the plants.

"The white stuff probably will remain there, but it won't bother those plants," Ogata said.

So, if you turn the soil and see a lot of white fungal growth either in the soil or attached to plant roots, it's not generally something bad.

However, "if it's growing on the surface of the soil - a clumpy layer of a white, mushroomlike growth - that's something different."

You can call Ogata at 956-8053 to find out what to do in that case or find out more about your fungus problem.

If you have a more general plant question, you can call the Urban Garden Center's help line, which is staffed 9 a.m. to noon Mondays-Fridays. At other times you can leave a message. Jan McEwen is in charge of the master gardener program.

The Urban Garden Center is located at 962 2nd St. in Pearl City.

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