Can my plants catch the flu? Plant viruses and transmission to hosts
It’s flu season! Hopefully, you have gotten the flu vaccine for you and your family this year. If not, there’s still time. While you may or may not catch the flu this year, some folks wonder if it’s possible for them to transmit viruses to plants or for viruses to make the leap from plants to animals, especially when working with food crops. The answer is simply, no. Since plants are not a susceptible host for the virus that gives us the flu. VIruses are incredibly host specific, so we can’t get sick with a plant virus and plants can’t get sick with an animal virus. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t “spread” viral diseases to plants. A good example of humans transmitting viruses to plants is the tobacco mosaic virus. If you smoke tobacco, the virus may be present in the tobacco you smoke, which will not affect you, but if you touch plants after handling a cigarette containing the viral particles, you can transmit the disease to a healthy tobacco plants (or other plant susceptible to this particular virus). The virus doesn’t infect humans (or other animals) but we can carry it from host plant to host plants on anything from our hands to pruning equipment, event our shoes. This virus easily infects vegetable plants in the Solanaceae family, like peppers and tomatoes. Simply washing your hands before gardening can help prevent transmitting this virus.
Additionally, certain pests in the garden can become vectors (carriers) of a virus like the whitefly, aphids, thrips, etc. Whitefly is a common garden pest in Florida that can be controlled with scouting and using low-toxic pesticides when population sizes increase to the point they are causing noticeable damage. (For more information on this type of pesticide, visit http://monroe.ifas.ufl.edu/lawn/documents/Insect_Control_Soaps_and_Detergents.pdf.) It is important to be on the lookout for symptoms that your plant may have a virus. Once infected, the plant cannot be cured and the best option is often to simply remove that plant to prevent the virus from being transmitted to the others. Because common garden pests can often times be vectors of viruses, it is important to constantly scout and control pests in your garden to prevent the infection and spread of viral, and possibly other diseases.
Viruses can be easily transmitted between plants through garden tools. This is why it is important to disinfect your garden tools routinely, especially your pruning shears, because as you move from plant to plant you can also move a disease from the previous plant to the next. For more information on disinfecting your garden tools, visit http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/care/tools-and-equipment/disinfecting-tools.html. If you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact the Pasco Extension Office, at (352)518-0156
E. Santiago-Gomez (Community Garden Program Assistant) and W. Elmore (Urban Horticulture Agent)