Elizabeth Lombardi, a graduate student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, is collecting field data on plant pathogens in natural ecosystems throughout the Adirondack region, and has identified a virus in the non-native species Dame’s Rocket at several locations. Lombardi is asking the public if they cultivate this flower, or have seen it in the Adirondacks.
Wild plants, like their cultivated relatives, are susceptible to a diversity of pathogenic antagonists. Unlike crops, however, wild plants live or die by their own defenses when confronted by adversity. In recent years, there has been an uptick in scientific interest in plant epidemiology of natural systems and how environmental changes such as urbanization and global warming may alter pathogen presence wild plants.
The Adirondack region is unique in its mosaic of land use types, which increase the number of interfaces between natural systems and human activities. Viral vectors and other pests are often facilitated by human activities, yet little is known about the current state of invasive pathogens in the region. Given the heterogeneity of land uses and connectivity to proximal natural areas, it is very likely that there are a number of plant viruses in native and naturalized flora of the Adirondacks that have yet to be detected.
Most viruses require a vector, or a ‘chauffer’, to get from plant to plant. They are constrained to the range of the leaf hoppers, aphids and other piercing/sucking insects that move them around. It is generally thought that there are relatively fewer vectors present in Adirondacks, which suggests that the probability of finding viruses in natural systems is low. Is this true? Perhaps, but preliminary data suggest that there are indeed aphid vectors present in the heart of the region, and that further research is needed to understand if and where viruses accompany them.
The focus of Lombardi’s research is viral epidemiology of Adirondack brassica species, including non-native species that have colonized disturbed areas and that live in your gardens. Her current interest is in locating and sampling as many clusters of Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) as possible. Dame’s Rocket is an ornamental and garden escapee found along highways and near built environments (towns, gardens and such). If you cultivate Dame’s Rocket or know where some exists, please contact me as soon as possible.
Response from gardeners and naturalists will build an empirical understanding of where and why plants in the Adirondacks are susceptible to viral infection. The question of epidemiology in wild plant communities is generally understudied, but has the potential to increase scientific understanding of plant immunity and pathogen range limits for conservation of natural systems across the planet. Furthermore, it is possible (even likely) that hosts in natural systems are reservoirs for pathogens that repeatedly infect neighboring crop fields, thus threatening economic and food security of the region.
Hesperis matronalis (Family: Brassicaceae) Description: Alternate, lanceolate leaves with toothed margins. Flowers are purple to white in color with four petals. Color breaking in petal pigmentation, as seen in the accompanying photo, is a possible variation. Dame’s Rocket occurs in disturbed habitats and marginal areas of partial to full shade. These are a beautiful and pleasantly fragrant flower, and are likely to be found in gardens as well. Fruits are starting to set now, so it’s time to gather seeds!
If you have planted Dame’s Rocket or know of a natural cluster, please email Elizabeth Lombardi with a specific location and, ideally, photograph at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo of Dame’s Rocket by Elizabeth Lombardi.