Managing blackleg in canola

Page last updated: Tuesday, 30 August 2022 - 5:52pm

Please note: This content may be out of date and is currently under review.

Blackleg is the most regularly occurring, serious disease of canola in Western Australia. Here we discuss disease development and spread, varietal responses, management strategies and minimising risk from spore showers using the BlacklegCM decision tool. This page replaces Bulletin 4571.

Blackleg, caused by the fungus Leptosphaeria maculans, is one of the most serious diseases of canola in Western Australia. Blackleg can cause significant damage by infecting the cotyledons or first leaves early in the season, leading ultimately to crown lesions or cankers later in the season. Changes in variety choice, earlier sowing times and stubble retention have extended the risk of blackleg disease. Now, because of early emergence, later stages of crop growth are more likely to be exposed and infection can occur on all parts of the plant above ground, including canola flowers, stems and branches. To assist with diagnosis, symptoms of the disease are described in detail on the Diagnosing blackleg in canola page. A diagnosis service is also available through the department's DDLS - Plant pathology services (this is a chargeable service).

Disease development and spread

Several factors contribute to development of the disease. While the major source of primary inoculum is canola residue, the inoculum is also carried over by infected seed (Diagram 1). However, the impact of carry-over of inoculum on seed is very low when compared with the inoculum carry-over on residues.

Seasonal conditions have a major influence on the level of disease. Rains in late autumn and throughout winter stimulate the release of blackleg spores from canola residue present on the surface of paddocks.

Blackleg is spread primarily by wind, with the heaviest spore fall out normally occurring within 500 metres of any canola residue. Each year canola residue continues to produce blackleg spores at a diminishing rate until the stubble has completely broken down (see Diagram 2).

In WA, this breakdown could take up to four years, and so the recommendation is for long rotations.

lifecycle of blackleg from spring stem canker infection, summer survival in trash, autumn ascospores, winter lesions
Diagram 1 Diagrammatic illustration of the life cycle of blackleg in canola
Cycle of decreasing levels of spore release each year for a four year period
Diagram 2 Diagrammatic illustration of the intensity of spore release

Intensity of spore release from ageing canola stubble over a four year period in Western Australia (spore release in the first and the second year based upon the field trials).

* Spore release from residues in year 2 are similar to release from residues that were raked and burnt in the first year.

Please report disease finds to PestFax for the benefit of all industry to be aware of disease occurrences and spread.

Seedling infection from blackleg

Blackleg can attack the crop at any stage, but early seedling infections are most critical in terms of the development of severe stem cankers (Diagram 1). Stem cankers from blackleg infection on canola seedlings cause a constriction in the stem just below the first leaves but above the ground leading to yield loss.

Blackleg lesions on a canola leaf
Blackleg leaf lesions
Blackleg infection on canola stem.
Blackleg infection on canola stem. Note the presence of tiny pycnidia of the fungus
Blackleg affected canola plant at the cabbage stage.
Blackleg affected canola plant at the cabbage stage
Blackleg canker in canola
Blackleg canker in canola

Heavy seedling losses can occur under very high disease pressure and in environments favourable to blackleg development, for example, where canola is planted on top of, or immediately downwind of last year’s or the previous season’s canola crop.

The blackleg fungus can attack all aerial parts of the plant. However, it is the less obvious infection of the crown region (junction of root base and stem) that causes the largest grain yield loss from blackleg. Canola seedlings of many varieties are susceptible to blackleg until they achieve a degree of adult plant resistance, usually at about the six leaf stage. While leaf infection is the most obvious symptom, high levels of leaf infections after six leaf stage do not necessarily indicate that major losses will occur from blackleg.

Fungicide strategies to minimise canker infections include fungicide seed dressings and/or fungicide in-furrow treatments. Foliar fungicide applications at the 4-6 leaf stages should not be necessary if other management guidelines are followed.

Upper canopy infection

The blackleg fungus is capable of attacking all aerial parts of the plant throughout the growing season.Wet spring conditions can be conducive to aerial blackleg, which impacts flowers, stems, branches and pods. Upper canopy infection (UCI) is the collective term for blackleg flower, petiole, pod, main stem and branch infection but does not include leaf lesions or crown canker.

Blackleg infection on a canola flower.
Blackleg infection on a canola flower. Note the presence of tiny pycnidia of the fungus

Important factors in the development of UCI are: flowering time, seasonal conditions relating to spore development and release, infection events, variety resistance and the interactions of these factors.

Although infection of the crown is the most damaging phase of the disease, infection of the upper canopy (UCI) can sometimes lead to severe yield losses. Pod lesions can impact yield but stem and branch lesions are the most damaging. The extent of yield loss will vary by season and is still being studied as aspects such as variety resistance is under complex genetic control. 

Symptoms of UCI include the presence of abundant pycnidia (black specks) in affected plant parts. Lesions on the stems and branches are usually elongated with a dark margin and white centre with pycnidia. Occasionally the entire flowering head is colonised by the fungus causing it to droop and shrivel. 

Effective major gene resistance provides control of UCI; if you see no blackleg lesions on leaves throughout the season then major gene resistance is likely to be active. Upper canopy infection is more frequently observed in canola varieties that have low to moderate resistance to blackleg and particularly in varieties with group C resistance and/or varieties that have recently been downgraded for resistance to blackleg. It has been found to be more severe in crops that are sown in short canola rotations.

Foliar fungicide application for managing UCI has highly variable responses. Research is in progress in WA and eastern Australia under the GRDC funded National Canola Pathology project to investigate various strategies for controlling the upper canopy blackleg infection. Research is being conducted by DPIRD on foliar fungicide application timing and determination of economic returns.