November 2023: Plant Pathology Playlist

Music IconYears ago, I participated (with three other Extension colleagues) in a weekly Saturday morning horticulture Q&A radio show in Milwaukee, WI.  One of the fun aspects of the show (other than being able to wax poetic about plant diseases on the air) was that I was allowed to select songs, snippets of which would be played as the show went in and came out of commercials.  Each month, I’d pick a theme (“celestial bodies” anyone?) and select seven or eight songs that both fit the theme and my musical tastes.  For this month’s web article, I continue this tradition by sharing some of my favorite plant-titled songs (with links to recordings) and providing commentary on diseases that might affect the referenced plants.

A Morning with the Roses

It’s hard to avoid “rose” songs in music.  They seem to be everywhere just like roses shrubs are everywhere in garden settings.  This “rose” song by Richard Dworsky is my favorite.  It’s an instrumental piece and one of the first New Age songs I ever encountered.

The most common disease of roses is black spot.  This disease affects rose leaves and canes, with classic symptoms being feathery-edged black leaf spots.  On susceptible rose varieties, the disease can be so severe that shrubs will defoliate.  For the causal rose grower, I suggest dealing with the disease by simply only growing black spot-resistant varieties.  Routine thinning of shrubs to promote better airflow and create a drier environment is another useful management strategy.  For hardcore rose growers, use of preventative fungicide treatments on particularly susceptible varieties may be needed to keep the disease under control.

Honeysuckle Rose

This Fats Waller/Andy Razaf song is part of the Great American Songbook, a compilation of “. . . the most important and influential popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th Century. . .” (per the Great American Songbook Foundation).  The definitive version of this song for me (probably because it’s the first version I heard as a kid) is by Lena Horne (I could listen to her sing the telephone book).  I also really love versions by contemporary jazz singer Jane Monheit and the amazing and tragic Eva Cassidy (I suggest listening to her cover of another plant-themed song, Sting’s “Fields of Gold”, as well).

Although this is another “rose” song, we’re going to concentrate, disease-wise, on the honeysuckle part of the title.  Every year, I enjoy watching my parents’ vining honeysuckle develop powdery mildew, the most common disease that I see on this plant.  By the end of the summer, the plant’s leaves are powdery and white, but as with most plants, the disease is primarily a cosmetic issue and causes little actual damage.  My parents’ honeysuckle blooms profusely and attracts hummingbirds (which my parents can watch for hours on end).  The twisted vines also provide shelter for English sparrows (much to my parents’ chagrin).  Management of powdery mildews on most plants, in my mind, involves developing the ability to ignore the diseases, given their cosmetic nature.  On more susceptible plant species (e.g., phlox and beebalms), growing resistant varieties and thinning plants to increase airflow and reduce humidity (the driving environmental factor for powdery mildew development) can help manage these diseases.

Willow Song

I’m not a huge opera fan, but this aria from “The Ballad of Baby Doe” by Douglas Moore and sung by the marvelous Beverly Sills really mesmerized me when I stumbled across it years ago.  Baby Doe was one of Sills’ signature roles (although I will always remember her best for her guest appearance on “The Muppet Show”).  If opera isn’t your thing, then consider as an alternate willow song, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Pussywillows, Cat-Tails”.

Probably the most common diseases that I see on willows (usually weeping willows) are canker diseases.  There are a wide range of canker fungi that can infect and girdle willow branches, leading to branch dieback.  Often weeping willows grow rapidly and outgrow significant damage from canker diseases.  However, if management is needed, I suggest pruning four to six inches below obviously dead areas on branches.  Always be sure to prune only when it is dry, and be sure to disinfest pruning tools between cuts by dipping them in bleach diluted to a final concentration of 0.5% sodium hypochlorite (the active ingredient) or (even better) 70% alcohol (e.g., rubbing alcohol).  Spray disinfectants can be used as a source of alcohol as well.  Just be sure to check the ingredient list of the disinfectant that you select to make sure it contains roughly 70% alcohol.  If you decide to use bleach, be sure to thoroughly rinse your tools after you are done pruning and oil them to prevent rusting that can be caused by bleach use.  You can dispose of branches by burning (where allowed) or burying them.


This song was written by Pat Alger, Ralph Murphy, and Ralph Murthy, and I found it on country singer Kathy Mattea’s “Lonesome Standard Time” album.  Mattea is one of my favorite country artists from the 1980s and 1990s.  I challenge you to listen to her recording of “Where Have You Been?” and not a shed a tear.

If you talk about seeds, then from a disease standpoint, you need to discuss damping-off.  This disease has both a seed decay phase (where seeds rot before germinating) and a seedling phase (where seedlings collapse and die just after emergence).  Damping-off can be caused by several fungi and water molds, with the water mold Pythium probably the most common organism involved.  To prevent damping-off, use pasteurized potting mixes/soil, decontaminate pots, germinate seeds at warm temperatures, and keep soil moisture on the dry side as seeds germinate and seedlings emerge.

Dusty Miller

I doubt that this traditional bluegrass song is about dusty miller plants, but I had to include the song in my list because one version of it was recorded by Alison Krauss.  “Dusty Miller” showcases Krauss’ prowess with a fiddle; she’s world-class.  I encourage you to explore her other music starting with her big hit (with her band Union Station), a cover of the Paul Overstreet/Don Schlitz song “When You Say Nothing at All”.  Her voice is ethereal and angelic.  There’s a reason she’s won 26 Grammy Awards (including two album of the year awards).

I rarely see dusty miller in the clinic, but when I do, the problem is typically a root rot of some kind.  Root rots tend to be caused by the same organisms that cause damping-off (discussed above).  At least some level of root rot pathogens can be found in most garden soils, so management of these diseases tends to involve moderating soil moisture.  Root rot organisms tend to be more active in wet soils, so making sure not to over-water and over-mulch can help prevent root rots from being an issue.  Most established plants require roughly one inch of water per week during the growing season.  Mulch usage varies depending on soil type.  For heavy soils (e.g., clay), use one to two inches of a high quality mulch (I like shredded oak bark mulch and red cedar mulch).  On light soils (e.g., sand), use three to four inches of mulch.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

This adaptation (by Robert Dwyer Joyce) of a traditional Celtic song is on the album of the same name by Canadian national treasure Loreena McKennitt.  Possessed of a haunting soprano voice and known for her harp accompaniments, I have enjoyed McKennitt’s work ever since hearing her perform “Penelope’s Song” on NPR in 2007.

Barley is not a plant that home gardeners typically grow, but as part of my diagnostic responsibilities, I often receive agricultural crop samples such as barley and wheat.  A common disease of these grain crops is barley yellow dwarf, a viral disease caused by Barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV)This virus is aphid transmitted.  The virus causes yellowing of barley and wheat leaves, particularly the flag leaf (the leaf just below the developing grain head).  This leaf is incredibly important for producing the nutrients needed for proper filling of grain heads.  Thus, the disruption and yellowing caused by BYDV can lead to substantial yield losses.  Management of the disease often entails modifying planting times.  For fall-sown wheat varieties, late planting after aphid populations have declined for the growing season is recommended to limit infections.  For spring sown wheat varieties, early planting is recommended.  This allows substantial time for plants to grow before aphids arrive and infections can occur.  Late infections have a lesser impact on yield.

Moments in the Woods

This song is from “Into the Woods”, perhaps my favorite Stephen Sondheim musical (I’m a huge Sondheim fan in general).  The added bonus of the version of the song linked above is that it’s sung by one of my favorite contemporary singers, Sara Bareilles, who starred in the 2022 Broadway revival of the show.  If you like Bareilles’ voice, I suggest checking out “Gravity” (and other songs) from her “Little Voice” album.

Thinking of plant diseases that I might encounter during a “moment in the woods”, black knot immediately comes to mind.  This is the disease that I affectionately call poop-on-a-stick, because the causal fungus induces formation of feces-like galls on branches of cherry and plum trees.  At this time of the year, even with an absence of leaves, I can ID these trees in wooded settings just based on black knot symptoms.  Pruning out infected branches on trees in landscape settings can help manage the disease.  However, certain individual cherry or plum trees can be so susceptible to black knot (and have so may galls), that I recommend “basal pruning” (i.e., removal) and replacement.

Prairie Trains

The final song on my playlist is a shoutout to my friend and colleague, Extension Dane County’s Lisa Johnson.  I’ve know Lisa since high school and watched her develop as a music composer and performer over the years.  This song, from her “The Season” album, is an ode to the many trips that she and I made in our undergraduate days to a prairie remnant (now long gone) sandwiched between the stretch of Hwy. 26 and the adjacent railroad track that ran between Fort Atkinson and Jefferson, WI.  I have many fond memories of those expeditions and the prairie plants that we stumbled upon.

One of the prairie plants that Lisa mentions in her song is big blue stem, and back in 2022 I received photos of this grass suffering from culm smut.  This is a fungal disease where spores of the causal fungus infect the plant’s flowers causing the formation of a fleshy gall.  This gall eventually degrades into a powdery mass of blackish fungal spores that are blown to other big blue stem plants where they initiate additional infections.  The pathogen not only infects the seed heads, but it eventually systemically colonizes the rest of the plant.  Infected plants become stunted, and can continue to produce flower galls and fungal sporulation for a time.  Eventually the plants decline to the point where they no longer bloom and eventually die out.  Interestingly, there is speculation that this disease plays a role in the normal process of plant succession in prairies.  That said, if you love your big blue stem, removing infected plants as soon as you see them is important to prevent spread of the pathogen to other big blue stem in your planting.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s musical plant disease adventure.  If you have your own favorite plant-titled or plant-themed songs, I’d love to hear about them.  Feel free to contact me at or (608) 262-2863 with your suggestions.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!