Heat Damage in Vegetables

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

The current heat wave is causing losses in vegetables and fruits. The following are some effects of high temperatures on vegetable and fruit crops.

The plant temperature at which tissue dies is around 115°F. Normally, plant temperature is just above air temperature. However, plant temperature can rise to a critical level under certain conditions. Plants have 3 major ways in which they dissipate excess heat: 1) long-wave radiation, 2) heat convection into the air and 3) transpiration.

A critical factor is transpiration. If transpiration is interrupted by stomatal closure due to water stress, inadequate water uptake, injury, vascular system plugging or other factors, a major cooling mechanism is lost. Without transpiration, the only way that plants can lose heat is by heat radiation back into the air or wind cooling. Under high temperatures, radiated heat builds up in the atmosphere around leaves, limiting further heat dissipation.

Dry soil conditions start a process that can also lead to excess heating in plants. In dry soils, roots produce Abscisic Acid (ABA). This is transported to leaves and signals to stomate guard cells to close. As stomates close, transpiration is reduced. Without water available for transpiration, plants cannot dissipate much of the heat in their tissues. This will cause internal leaf temperatures to rise.

Vegetables can dissipate a large amount of heat if they are functioning normally. However, in extreme temperatures (high 90s or 100s) there is a large increase the water vapor pressure deficient (dryness of the air). Rapid water loss from the plant in these conditions causes leaf stomates to close, again limiting cooling, and spiking leaf temperatures, potentially to critical levels causing damage or tissue death.

Very hot, dry winds are a major factor in heat buildup in plants. Such conditions cause rapid water loss because leaves will be losing water more quickly than roots can take up water, leading to heat injury. Therefore, heat damage is most prevalent in hot, sunny, windy days from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. when transpiration has been reduced. As the plants close stomates to reduce water loss, leaf temperatures will rise even more. In addition, wind can decrease leaf boundary layer resistance to water movement and cause quick dehydration. Wind can also carry large amounts of advected heat.

Photosynthesis rapidly decreases above 94°F, so high temperatures will limit yields in many vegetables and fruits. While daytime temperatures can cause major heat related problems in plants, high night temperatures can have great effects on vegetables, especially fruiting vegetables. Hot night temperatures (nights above 75) will lead to greater cell respiration. This limits the amount of sugars and other storage products that can go into fruits and developing seeds.

High temperatures also can cause increased developmental disorders in fruiting vegetables. A good example is with pollen production in beans. As night temperatures increase, pollen production decreases leading to reduced fruit set, reduced seed set, smaller pods, and split sets. Most fruiting vegetables will abort flowers and fruits under high temperatures.

Heat injury in plants includes scalding and scorching of leaves and stems, sunburn on fruits and stems, leaf drop, rapid leaf death, reduction in growth, and lower yields. Wilting is the major sign of water loss which can lead to heat damage. Plants often will drop leaves or, in severe cases, will “dry in place” where death is so rapid, abscission layers have not had time to form.

On black plastic mulch, surface temperatures can exceed 150°F. This heat can be radiated and reflected onto vegetables causing tremendous heat loading. This is particularly a problem in young plants that have limited shading of the plastic. This can cause heat lesions just above the plastic. Heat lesions are usually first seen on the south or south-west side of stems. High bed temperatures under plastic mulch can also lead to reduced root function limiting nutrient uptake. This can lead to increased fruit disorders such as white tissue, yellow shoulders, and blotchy ripening in tomato fruits.

High heat and associated water uptake issues will cause heat stress problems. As heat stress becomes more severe a series of event occurs in plants starting with a decrease in photosynthesis and increase in respiration. As stress increases, photosynthesis shuts down due to the closure of stomates which slows or stops CO2 capture and increases photo-respiration. This will cause growth inhibition. There will be a major slow-down in transpiration leading to reduced plant cooling and internal temperature increase. At the cellular level, as stress becomes more severe there will be membrane integrity loss, cell membrane leakage and protein breakdown. Toxins generated through cell membrane releases will cause damage to cellular processes. Finally, if stress is severe enough there can be plant starvation through rapid use of food reserves, inefficient food use, and inability to call on reserves when and where needed.

Another negative side effect of reduced plant photosynthate production and lower plant food reserves during heat stress is a reduction in the production of defensive chemicals in the plant leading to increased disease and insect vulnerability.

The major method to reduce heat stress is by meeting evapotranspiration demand with irrigation. Use of overhead watering, sprinkling, and misting can reduce of tissue temperature and lessen water vapor pressure deficit. Certain mulches can also help greatly. You can increase reflection and dissipation of radiative heat using reflective mulches or use low density, organic mulches such as straw to reduce surface radiation and conserve moisture. In very hot areas of the world, shade cloth is used for partial shading to total incoming radiation and heat.