UW Plant Disease Facts

Fire Blight

Authors: Ann Joy and Brian Hudelson, UW-Madison Plant Pathology
Last Revised: 05/12/2021
D-number: D0052

What is fire blight?  Fire blight is the most destructive bacterial disease affecting plants in the rose family, including apple, pear, crabapple, hawthorn, cotoneaster, mountain ash, quince, rose, pyracantha, and spirea.  It can disfigure or kill a tree or shrub, depending on the susceptibility of the host and weather conditions.

A shepherd’s crook at the end of an apple branch caused by fire blight.
A shepherd’s crook at the end of an apple branch caused by fire blight.

What does fire blight look like?  Blossoms, leaves, twigs, and branches of plants affected by fire blight can turn dark brown to black, giving the appearance of having been scorched in a fire.  The blighted blossoms and leaves tend to stay on the tree instead of falling.  Current year’s twigs often wilt and bend approximately 180°, forming a “shepherd’s crook.”  Cankers (sunken, discolored areas) form on branches and stems, and emit a sticky bacterial ooze.  Sapwood around cankers may discolor to a reddish brown.

Where does fire blight come from?  Fire blight is caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora, which overwinters on the margins of cankers and starts to multiply when temperatures rise in the spring.  The bacteria-laden ooze from the cankers is dispersed by splashing rain and insects.  Bacteria multiply in blossoms and are carried to other plant parts where they penetrate through wounds and natural openings.  They can also be spread through the plant’s water-conducting (vascular) system.

How do I save a plant with fire blight?  There is no cure for fire blight, but its spread can be limited.  Prune diseased branches preferentially during the dormant season at a time when branches are dry.  When removing diseased branches, prune six to eight inches below tissue showing visible symptoms.  If pruning is required during the growing season, prune at least 12 inches below the diseased area.  Always disinfect pruning tools after each cut by treating them for at least 30 seconds with 10% bleach or (preferably due to its less corrosive properties) 70% alcohol (e.g., rubbing alcohol, certain spray disinfectants).  Burn or bury diseased branches.  If you use bleach, be sure to thoroughly rinse and oil your tools after pruning to prevent rusting.

How do I avoid problems with fire blight in the future?  By far the most effective strategy is to choose plants with fire blight resistance.  Also, select a well-drained site with a soil pH of 5.5 to 6.5.  Avoid applying high nitrogen fertilizer, which may stimulate succulent new growth that is more prone to damage and thus infection.  Consider treating with Bordeaux mixture (copper sulfate + lime) before buds open to reduce the level of bacteria present on branches.  Make one or two applications, with four days between applications.

For more information on fire blight:  See UW Bulletins A1616 (Apple, Pear, and Other Related Tree Disorder:  Fire Blight), A3565 (Growing Apples in Wisconsin), and A2072 (Growing Pears in Wisconsin), all available at https://learningstore.extension.wisc.edu/, or contact your county Extension agent.

This Fact Sheet is also available in PDF format:

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Thanks to Teryl Roper, Patricia McManus, and Patti Nagai for reviewing this document.

A complete inventory of UW Plant Disease Facts is available at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Plant Disease Diagnostics Clinic website: https://pddc.wisc.edu.