Page last updated: Thursday, 11 December 2014 - 8:21am

Please note: This content may be out of date and is currently under review.

Nematodes are common soil pests that affect plants. The aboveground symptoms of disease caused by nematodes can be difficult to detect, and may be often confused with symptoms of nutrient deficiency. Typically, plants do not thrive, are paler than normal, and may wilt in the heat of the day. Affected plants are often dwarfed, with small leaves. Sometimes, when infected plants are growing in moist, fertile soil, or during cool weather, the aboveground parts can still appear healthy.

Types of nematodes

There are numerous soil-inhabiting nematode species, but not all are harmful to plants. This information sheet deals only with plant-parasitic nematodes. Within this group, some nematodes spend their life within the plant roots. These are endoparasitic. Others are ectoparasitic, and only their stylets (hollow spears used to puncture roots) enter the plant to extract nutrients from the roots or root cells. Plant-parasitic nematodes have many hosts and are seldom plant-specific.

Root knot nematodes

Root knot nematodes (Meloidogyne) are the most damaging species in the home garden. These nematodes have a very wide host range, affecting more than 2000 plant species worldwide. Root knot nematodes enter the roots as larvae, causing the plant roots to form galls or knots, and there may be excessive root branching. Underground organs such as potato tubers or carrot taproots may be damaged and become unmarketable. The nematode larvae mature in the roots, where they mate. The female adults enlarge, remain in the roots, and lay eggs into an egg sac that exudes into the soil. The eggs hatch and the young larvae go on to infect more roots.

Plants are damaged because the galls or root knots block the transport of water and nutrients through the plant. Nematode feeding sites in the roots can also provide entrance for other disease-causing organisms, like fungi or bacteria, leading to increased plant damage. Nematodes are a greater problem where conditions favour them, such as a long growing season, sandy soil and if plants are under water or nutrient stresses.

Root lesion nematodes

Although they are present in home gardens, where they can affect fruit trees, roses and turf, root lesion nematodes (Pratylenchus) are more damaging to broad-acre crops like cereals. Root lesion nematodes use the stylet to puncture roots and enter the cells. They move through the root, piercing cells, extracting cell contents, and leaving behind a trail of both cell-killing metabolites and eggs. Root cell death results in browning and lesioning of the roots. These lesions can rapidly coalesce, resulting in browning of whole roots. Individual lesions may fully encircle a root. These nematodes also damage feeder roots and root hairs, further reducing a plant’s effective extraction of water and nutrients from the soil. The overall effect is a weak, shallow root system with many dead or dying areas. When the soil dries out, root lesion nematodes become inactive and survive in a dry form in the soil or in root tissue of old crops. As the soil moistens, the nematodes become active again and reinfect the fresh roots of the new crop.


Many nematodes occur naturally, at low levels, in most soils. Most plant-parasitic nematodes enter the garden through infested soil or infested transplants. Once nematodes are present, they are almost impossible to eliminate, but their damage to plants can be reduced. Inspect the roots of transplants before placing them into your garden, whether they originate from a reputable dealer or a neighbour. This will help to keep your garden clean. Successive growth of plants that host the nematodes will lead to an increase in their population.