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Abiotic (Non-Infectious) Symptoms in Wheat


This page was adapted from the article, "Abiotic (Non-Infectious) Symptoms in Wheat ," which appeared in Crop & Pest Report on June 10, 2021.

Extreme differences in temperature, low relative humidity, and water stress can lead to unusual leaf spots on wheat. In years with these conditions, reports of wheat with bizarre and unusual leaf lesions have been received and can be misdiagnosed as a disease. This report will review some of the key diagnostic features of abiotic (non-infectious) disorders.

Color banding

Extreme differences in nighttime and daytime temperatures can lead to several reports of color banding in wheat. Symptoms of color banding include yellowing and/or purpling of leaves that have recently emerged (Figure 1). These first leaves are sensitive to soil temperature and injury can commonly occur. We usually observe this abiotic disorder early in the growing season during frost events. In the past, we have observed color banding on late emerging wheat that has been exposed to temperature extremes. Heat canker (leaf tissue death) is another abiotic disorder that is commonly observed on wheat emerging during hot days. Regardless, wheat will recover from this injury and it should not impact crop development.

Figure 1. Photo on the left shows characteristic color banding (yellowing and purpling) on leaf tissue (Credit: Friskop). Photo on the right shows yellow color banding and heat canker
Photo Credit:
Mark Huso, HusoCrop Consulting

Brown Irregular Spots

Brown to chocolate colored lesions sometimes appear either on the natural fold of the leaf or confined to certain leaves (Figure 2). These lesions can be confused with fungal leaf spots due to the color and appearance on a leaf. Fungal leaf spot lesions (ie: tan spot or Septoria) will often have a definitive margin, have an ellipsoid shape, will not be confined to a certain leaf, and will be found in fields near wheat residue experiencing several days of prolonged leaf wetness. The brown abiotic lesions are likely a physiological response to the environment and will not affect crop development.

Figure 2. Brown irregular shaped lesions have been commonly reported this year and likely a physiological response to the environment
Photo Credit:
Tommy Crompton, NDSU IPM Scout

Bleached spots

Crop injury from a chemical application can be observed in some years. Chemical injury can occur if pesticides are applied during hot days or can result from an off-target application (Figure 3). Lesions caused by chemicals may be irregular, necrotic, have a bleached center (Figure 3) or may have a distinct “halo” surrounding the lesion. Necrotic lesions can sometimes be caused by oil adjuvants or oil-based herbicide formulations, but the injury is usually associated with a contact herbicide. Lesions with a distinct halo and bleached center are typical of paraquat and group 14 herbicides. Chemical injury will often follow a field spray pattern (ie: field wide or boom width) and be found on plant tissue available at the time of application. Finally, chemical injury will suddenly appear after an application has been made.


Figure 3. Irregular, bleached colored lesions due to a contact herbicide on wheat.
Photo Credit:
Angie Johnson, Steele Co. Extension Agent).

Andrew Friskop
Extension Plant Pathology, Cereal Crops

Joe Ikley
Extension Weed Specialist