Contagious fungus killing plants on Long Island

June 27, 2010 8:28:40 PM PDT
It's responsible for the Irish potato famine of the 1800's, and it's popped up on Long Island. It's a deadly fungus that targets potato and tomato plants and has claimed its first casualties of the summer, in East Setauket.

Experts fear it could be the first of many.

Jeff Geary calls it a labor of love lost. As Assistant Pastor of the Setauket Presbyterian Church, he helped launch a community garden earlier this season. Twelve members are growing fruits and vegetables, with plans to donate them to the hungry.

This week with no warning all their tomato plants, shriveled up and died.

"It's been grief. We had such great hopes for this garden and what we can do with it, and I've come out to be with everyone as we pull their plants up and pack them up," said Geary.

The blight killed the tomatoes with amazing speed. One day they were green and healthy on the vine, and not three days later, the leaves grew brown and wilted.

The culprit is an aggressive and highly contagious fungus called Late Blight. Its microscopic spores can travel with the wind, up to 40 miles, attacking tomatoes and potatoes in their path.

"It's a very difficult disease to control," said Meg McGrath.

McGrath researches plant diseases for Cornell. Last year, she watched Blight destroy crops up and down the east coast.

She fears Monday's report out of Setauket is likely the first of many this summer, and she wants home gardeners to be on guard.

"It's important not just to get rid of the plants but let us know where it's happening so we can notify farmers," adds McGrath.

Like Lewin Farm in Calverton, where they've been tilling the soil for generations.

Last year's Blight destroyed some of their potatoes, but their tomatoes did survive.

But for now, they're keeping a close watch on their crops hoping to protect a rite of summer from a silent killer.

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