Heat Effects on Vegetable and Fruit Crops

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

2015 has not been an excessively hot year. However, we have recently had some typical July weather with high temperatures and high humidity. 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 in the 80s) 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 temperatures increase, pollen production decreases leading to reduced fruit set, reduced seed set, smaller pods, and split sets.

Heat injury in plants includes scalding and scorching of leaves and stems, sunburn on fruits and stems, leaf drop, rapid leaf death, and reduction in growth. 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.

There are three types of sunburn which may have effects on fruits and fruiting vegetables. The first, sunburn necrosis, is where skin, peel, or fruit tissue dies on the sun exposed side of the fruit. Cell membrane integrity is lost in this type of sunburn and cells start leaking their contents. The critical fruit tissue temperature for sunburn necrosis varies with type of fruit. For cucumbers research has shown that the fruit skin temperature threshold for sunburn necrosis is 100 to 104°F; for peppers, the threshold is 105 to 108°F, and for apples the critical fruit skin temperature is 125-127°F. Fruits with sunburn necrosis are not marketable.

The second type of sunburn injury is sunburn browning. This sunburn does not cause tissue death but does cause loss of pigmentation resulting in a yellow, bronze, or brown spot on the sun exposed side of the fruit. Cells remain alive, cell membranes retain their integrity, cells do not leak, but pigments such as chlorophyll, carotenes, and xanthophylls are denatured or destroyed. This type of sunburn browning occurs at a temperature about 5°F lower than sunburn necrosis (115 to 120° F in apples). Light is required for sunburn browning. Fruits may be marketable but will be a lower grade.

The third type of sunburn is photooxidative sunburn. This is where shaded fruit are suddenly exposed to sunlight as might occur with late pruning, after storms where leaf cover is suddenly lost, or when vines are turned in drive rows. In this type of sunburn, the fruits will become photobleached by the excess light because the fruit is not acclimatized to high light levels, and fruit tissue will die. This bleaching will occur at much lower fruit temperatures than the other types of sunburn.

Leaf scald occurs most commonly when temperatures are in the high 90s. At these air temperatures, crop leaf temperatures may rise to a critical level where plant cells are damaged and they desiccate quickly, leaving the scalded appearance. Upper leaves are the most exposed to radiation from the sun and therefore the most susceptible. Drying winds and low humidity will make scald more severe. Any interruption in transpiration during this period will increase leaf temperature even more and make scald more severe.

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. 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 reduce advected heat and total incoming radiation.

Control of sunburn in fruits starts with developing good leaf cover in the canopy to shade the fruit. Fruits most susceptible to sunburn will be those that are most exposed, especially those that are not shaded in the afternoon. Anything that reduces canopy cover will increase sunburn, such as foliar diseases, wilting due to inadequate irrigation, and excessive or late pruning. Physiological leaf roll, common in some solanaceous crops such as tomato, can also increase sunburn.

In crops with large percentages of exposed fruits at risk of sunburn, fruits can be protected by artificial shading using shade cloth (10-30% shade). However, this is not practical for large acreages. For sunburn protection at a field scale, use of film spray-on materials can reduce or eliminate sunburn. Many of these materials are Kaolin clay based and leave a white particle film on the fruit (such as Surround, Screen Duo, and many others). There are also film products that protect fruits from sunburn but do not leave a white residue, such as Raynox. Apply these materials at the manufacturer’s rates for sunburn protection. They may have to be reapplied after heavy rains or multiple overhead irrigation events.