I have the coolest job on the planet. Everyday, I get to help people with their plant disease problems. This may entail helping someone learn how to grow healthy, nutritious vegetables to feed their family or assisting a grieving family select the just the right tree to plant to serve as a lasting memorial for a recently lost loved one. On occasion, I get to help Wisconsin farmers avoid severe economic losses due to plant diseases or help prevent the introduction of federally regulated plant pathogens that potentially can have negative impacts nationwide This month, I’d like to share with you a diagnostic case where a proper diagnosis had the potential to save someone’s life.
I recently received photos from a home gardener who was growing tomato transplants indoors. She was concerned that her plants were not doing well and losing leaves. Her photos showed plants with leaves that were cupping downward and showed twisted petioles and other growth distortions. I was immediately suspicious that the plants had been exposed to ethylene. Ethylene is a gas that is a plant growth hormone that can be very beneficial for proper plant development; in particular, ethylene is important in fruit ripening. But in other situations, when plants are exposed at the wrong time or at too high of a concentration, ethylene can have negative effects, in fact exactly the sort of symptoms I was seeing in my client’s photos: distorted plant growth and premature leaf loss.
After an exchange of several emails, the puzzle pieces started to fall into place. My client had been growing her tomatoes in the basement (not uncommon for many gardeners) next to the boiler that provided heat for her home. As the weather warmed up, she moved the plants to her garage where she parks her car and where she has a full kitchen. She had been cooking in this kitchen recently to provide a bit of additional warmth for her plants. Both her boiler and stove burn propane.
At this point, alarm bells were going off. If propane burners malfunction and don’t burn propane completely, one of the breakdown products of this incomplete combustion is ethylene. You can also find ethylene in exhaust fumes from motor vehicles, in the smoke produced by wood-burning stoves and as a contaminant in natural gas. I suggested to my client that she should have her boiler and stove checked immediately for problems. One or both of these (and possibly also fumes from her car) were likely the source of ethylene that was causing problems for her tomatoes. She emailed back to tell me that what I had told her made perfect sense as her tomatoes nearer the boiler had more severe symptoms than those farther away. Another sentence from this email became the inspiration for the title of this article: “So the tomatoes plants in the basement acted like a canary in a coalmine.”
I told her that she was spot on with her analogy, and at that point, I gave potentially even more serious news. In addition to producing ethylene, malfunctioning propane burners (and other types of heating systems) also can produce carbon monoxide, a potentially deadly gas. According to the CDC, approximately 50,000 people visit hospitals with carbon monoxide poisoning each year and at least 430 of these people die from this poisoning. Luckily, my client had a carbon monoxide detector near the boiler and it hadn’t gone off. But, the unit was old, and my client indicated that our conversation had made her realize that she needed to replace that unit.
What if she hadn’t had a carbon monoxide detector? Then, those distorted tomatoes would have been her first hint that a potentially deadly carbon monoxide situation was developing. Similarly, if she had had distorted tomatoes growing near a natural gas-fueled furnace, that could have indicated a natural gas leak, another potentially lethal situation.
Ah, the power of a lowly vegetable and a bit of knowledge about how they grow!
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