11 Strawberry Diseases: How to Identify, Prevent, and Treat Them

Growing strawberries in your garden is a great garden activity no matter your skill level. But unfortunately, strawberries can be plagued by certain different types of diseases. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey walks through how to identify, prevent, and treat common diseases your garden strawberries may be affected by.

strawberry diseases

Strawberries are easy to grow, and are vigorous and resilient perennial plants. But they are not immune to problems. Plant diseases can take hold of a strawberry patch and wipe out your yields very quickly.

We’ll explore the causes of the most common strawberry diseases below, but first, it helps to understand what exactly causes strawberries to get sick in the first place. Hint: it’s not just the pathogen (disease-causing organisms) themselves!

Just like humans and animals, stress makes strawberries more susceptible to pathogens. But plant stress is obviously much different from the mental pressures of human life. Rather than worrying about money or being overwhelmed at work, strawberries get stressed out by garden conditions that weaken the plant and make it more vulnerable to attack. Let’s take a look at what stresses your strawberries, and the diseases that accompany them.

Strawberry Stressors That Preclude Disease

  • Weather stress: Excess heat or unexpected cold can severely weaken strawberry plants, especially when the weather changes very quickly as in a cold snap.
  • Drought stress: Strawberries are very thirsty plants and suffer when they don’t have enough water. As a result, certain diseases like powdery mildew are quick to take hold.
  • Fertility stress: When there’s not enough soil nutrition to fuel vigorous plant growth, strawberries get stressed out and suffer. The full array of micro and macro nutrients are necessary to grow a healthy plant that can withstand the threats of disease.
  • Pest pressure: Excessive feeding on the foliage of leaves can reduce plant resistance to disease. Holes in the foliage also act as entry points for harmful microorganisms.
  • Frost damage: Strawberries are very susceptible to disease when they are damaged by frost just before or after winter dormancy.
  • Lack of airflow: Stagnant air can be a major cause of foliar diseases like blights and molds. Just like humans, plants need to breathe and have ample fresh air flowing through.
  • Overcrowding: If you’re stuck crammed in a subway like sardines, chances are you will get sick after a while. Overcrowded strawberries are especially prone to disease
  • Poor soil: Perhaps the greatest stressor for any plant is growing in poor soils. This is especially the case for strawberries, which love well-drained, loamy soil that is rich in organic matter. If they are grown in compacted, heavy clay soil that gets waterlogged after rain, they will be much more stressed out and susceptible to disease.

Now that we understand the core underlying causes of strawberry plants, let’s dig into the most common diseases that attack strawberries and what to do about them!

Major Strawberry Diseases

Strawberry diseases can attack from all angles. They can affect the leaves, roots, flowers, fruits, and crowns. Fortunately, when we are armed with the knowledge of how to identify and prevent strawberry disease, it becomes a lot easier to keep pathogens at bay.

Just like any illness, taking preventative measures to keep the plant healthy is always your best defense. However, there are also plenty of organic control options to deal with strawberry diseases in a non-toxic way.

Botrytis Rot (Gray Mold)

Botrytis Rot (Gray Mold)
Botrytis Rot manifests in spots on the leaves and shoots.

Oh, Botrytis: the bane of fruit growers’ existence. Most commonly known as a major problem in wine grapes, this gray mold has over 200 plant hosts, including our lovely strawberries. This nasty mold can cause up to 80% loss of strawberry yields.

It thrives in cool conditions between 58 and 72°F and high humidity. The fungus attacks the coveted ripe fruits just before or after harvest, causing gorgeous juicy strawberries to become covered in unsightly fluffy gray mold.

How to Identify

Botrytis is most commonly found on strawberries as they ripen. The key identification factors include:

  • Small brown lesions near top of berries (early on)
  • Powdery dead young leaves
  • Velvety gray or brownish mold on fruit
  • Soft and mushy rotten holes or areas on fruit
  • Weird, misshapen fruit
  • “Mummy berries” covered in moldy white to gray cotton-like mass

When the rotten areas start to appear soft and mushy, they’ll continue to expand until they take over the whole fruit. Unfortunately, this creates perfect conditions for the slightest breeze or touch to spread the moldy spores all around the garden. Once you notice botrytis, you have to act fast!

How to Prevent

Preventing botrytis is all about maintaining clean garden beds with excellent air flow and removing any diseased or dead plant material.

Follow these preventative sanitation practices every season:

  • Remove and destroy any infected or dead plant material (throw it away- don’t put it in your compost pile!)
  • Never leave dead strawberry plants, fruits, or leaves to overwinter in the garden
  • Rake up and remove any surrounding debris
  • Remove any fruit with signs of decay or rot (be careful not to spread spores in the wind)
  • Use straw mulch or landscape fabric to prevent rain splash up onto the berries
  • Grow in plastic low tunnels or greenhouses (especially if you live in a rainy climate)
  • Maintain adequate air flow between plants

Research also shows that there is a significant correlation between denser plantings and more disease. Give strawberry plants at least 1 square foot of space and keep up with thinning and pruning to ensure that the bed does not get overcrowded.

To end on a good note, you can prevent gray mold growth in post-harvest strawberries simply by chilling them immediately after you harvest. Keep the berries between 32 and 37°F and if you notice a moldy berry in a clamshell, remove it immediately. The rest should be fine!

How to Treat

Once botrytis takes hold, it’s hard to get rid of. Sure, you have removed all the infected berries and dead foliage, but the disease may keep spreading via its tiny windborne spores. Luckily, there are plenty of organic control strategies.

Our go-to boytrits control methods include:

  • Natural Fungicide: Neem oil is one of the bet natural fungicides that can be used preemptively as well as after an infection. Dilute the neem solution per the bottle specifications and spray directly on plants to reduce the chances of a botrytis breakout. Neem is a safe compound from a tropical tree, however it can taste pretty gross, so don’t forget to thoroughly wash your berries!
  • Biocontrol: Fight fungi with bacteria! Bacillus subtilis QST 713 (sold under the brand names Serenade or Cease) can be used as a preventative and treatment for botrytis. Streptomyces lydicus WYEC 1078 (brand name Actinovate AG) can also be helpful to apply once all diseased material has been removed.

Powdery Mildew

Powdery Mildew
Powdery Mildew – infected plants develop white, powdery spots on leaves and stems.

Warmth and humidity are powdery mildew’s favorite combo. This disease is similar to botrytis in many ways but it favors heat whereas botrytis likes the cool, damp of spring and fall. Luckily, powdery mildew has more control options and resistant varieties. It also is quite easy to spot. 

How to Identify

Powdery mildew starts out looking, well… powdery. The key identification characteristics are:

  • White powdery splotches on the top of leaves or stems
  • Leaves look like they’re dusted with white powder (especially the underside)
  • Curling and twisted leaves
  • Purple or brownish blotches on leaves
  • Deformed fruit or no fruit
  • Seedy fruits with white powdery mycelium on the surface

The fluffy, white patches start to appear on leaves in late spring when daytime temperatures start to reach over 60°F. The mildew will cause younger leaves to curl and cup upwards.

As it spreads and ages, the leaves may turn purplish-red and brown underneath and eventually on their top surface as well. The mildew favors young, tender tissue and isn’t often found on older leaves.

How to Prevent

Powdery mildew often overwinters on remnants of last year’s strawberries, which is why maintaining a clean garden is so important. It can also come into your garden via contaminated crowns or transplants, or the spores can blow in from nearby gardens, fields, or greenhouses.

If you want to avoid a nasty powdery mildew outbreak, try these preventative measures:

  • Remove all old crop debris and dead leaves
  • Use only certified disease-free strawberry plants or crowns from a reputable source
  • Buy varieties that are more resistant (none are completely immune), including ‘Albion’, ‘Seascape’, ‘Chandler’, or ‘Hood’
  • Apply a compost tea or horsetail (Equisetum spp.) preparation as a foliar spray to help boost the fungal resistance on leaf surfaces
  • Apply sulfur or neem sprays as a preventative
  • Avoid excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer
  • Prevent overcrowding and maintain air flow between plants

Powdery mildew loves dry leaves, high humidity, and warm air temperatures. Unlike botrytis, overhead irrigation and raindrops on the leaves can actually inhibit the mildew from forming spores. But we still think it’s best to avoid sprinklers in the strawberry patch.

How to Treat

Thankfully, there are more options for treating powdery mildew than other strawberry diseases. First, carefully remove all dead or infected leaves, stems, or fruit from the area. If a plant is totally overtaken by powdery mildew, just pull it out and throw it away. Don’t forget to wash your hands before going back to the garden! Next, prepare a simple non-toxic spray

The best organic powdery mildew treatments include:

  • Homemade Baking Soda Spray: This old time granny remedy is highly effective as long as it includes a secret viscous ingredient (oil or soap) to hold the sodium bicarbonate on the leaf surface. Mix 1 tablespoon baking soda with 1 teaspoon horticultural oil or liquid soap (I like Dr. Bronners) and 1 gallon of water. Spray on the plants every 1-2 weeks.
  • Vinegar Spray: Mix 2-3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (about 5% acetic acid) in a gallon of water and spray all over plant surfaces. The acidity kills powdery mildew spores.
  • Milk: I know it sounds weird, but there have actually been reputable scientific studies showing that high concentrations of milk sprayed on plant leaves can be more effective than fungicides at controlling powdery mildew! Put milk in a spray bottle and cover plant surfaces once or twice per week until you notice a reduction in powdery mildew.

Leaf Spot

Strawberry Plant with Leaf Spot
When leaf spot hits, it can cause severe damage to your strawberry plant.

This disease occurs on strawberries all over the world and is especially prevalent during the extended wet periods of late spring. It is a fungal disease caused by Mycospharella fragarieae, which has spores that blow into your garden or spread from overwintered dead foliage.

Fortunately, leaf spot is mostly a cosmetic problem that doesn’t usually affect your yields or fruit.

How to Identify

Once again, scientists named this disease with a fair amount of logic. The key identifying factor of leaf spot is dead spots on strawberry leaves. But symptoms can also show up on fruits, berry caps, and runners. It’s important to distinguish leaf spot symptoms from blights or pest damage.

Key signs of leaf spot include:

  • Small, round, dead spots speckling the leaf surface
  • ⅛ to ¼ inch spots are purplish to deep red colored
  • Spots may later turn into tan or white centers with rusty-brown margins
  • Spots may merge together and kill whole leaves
  • Shallow black spots (up to ¼ inch) on fruits
  • Black or brown leathery texture on fruits near spots

The main difference between leaf spot and blight is that leaf spot has separated small “bullet hole” dots whereas blights form larger masses that are often “v-shaped” or follow the major veins of the leaf.

How to Prevent

Preventing leaf spot is fairly easy to do and typically goes along with all your other standard strawberry sanitation practices.

Key preventative measures include:

  • Remove all old plant material at the end of the season
  • Mow plants down after they finish fruiting to encourage new growth
  • Avoid overhead irrigation
  • Maintain adequate airflow between plants
  • Plan resistant varieties such as ‘Earliglow’, ‘Ogallala’, ‘Ozark Beauty’, and ‘Glooscap’

How to Treat

Leaf spot is technically “incurable”. Once it’s on your plants, your only goal is to slow the spread. Because this is mostly an aesthetic issue, researchers say that fungicide use isn’t usually warranted.

Leaf spot isn’t a huge issue unless you are noticing spots joining together and killing off significant numbers of leaves. At this point, you may want to remove plants and renovate the beds.

Leaf Blotch

Strawberry with Leaf Blotch
Leaf Blotch can occur in annual strawberry in the season following heavy rainfall.

If your region gets a lot of winter and spring rains, chances are you will notice leaf blotch (tan to gray or black lesions) on emerging strawberry foliage. This disease is caused by a fungus called Zythia fragariae and spreads with splashing water from infected areas.

How to Identify

Identifying leaf blotch is really straightforward:

  • Gray and tan lesions that begin at leaf margins
  • Blotches spread to cover first new leaves of spring plants
  • Tiny brown or black fruiting bodies on undersides of leaves
  • Brownish decay of the fruit calyx (green leaves on top of berries) that is purely cosmetic

How to Prevent

Preventing leaf blotch is also relatively simple:

  • Always remove old plant residues where the fungus could overwinter
  • Plant in plastic mulch or landscape fabric if you live in a very rainy climate
  • Keep plants thinned out
  • Avoid overhead irrigation
  • Plant in low tunnels to protect from rains

How to Treat

Leaf blotch can only be prevented using the above methods. Plant scientists emphasize that this is only a minor disease that typically disappears once winter and spring rains stop. There are no fungicides or treatments recommended for this pathogen.

Verticillium Wilt

Wilted Strawberry
Verticillium Wilt – leaf margins become dark or reddish yellow and new leaves wither.

Another unfortunate disease, Verticillium wilt is one of those scarier strawberry diseases. Once established in your garden, can live in the soil for decades or more! This disease can be caused by two nasty fungi, Verticillium albo-atrum and V. dahliae.

This wilt is most problematic in new strawberry plantings. It causes major drooping, wilting, and browning no matter how much you water the plants. Fortunately, there are plenty of preventative measures to keep this disease out of your garden.

How to Identify

The first signs of verticillium wilt usually show in new strawberry plantings right when the first runners begin to grow. In mature patches, symptoms may appear right before harvest.

The main signs you may have verticillium wilt include:

  • Rapid wilting and death of lots of plants
  • Older leaves wilt and droop no matter how much irrigation they get
  • Leaves turn dry, yellow, reddish, or brown at the margins and in the veins
  • New leaves stop developing
  • If new leaves grow, they are stunted and curled
  • Overall stunted plants
  • Bluish or brownish-black blotches on runners
  • Dwarfed roots growing from the crown

Sometimes verticillium wilt symptoms look very similar to red stele, black root rot, and winter injury. If this disease is extreme, you may have to consult your local extension agent to test for the pathogen or avoid growing strawberries altogether.

How to Prevent

Verticillium wilt overwinters in the soil and attacks plants from the roots. Research shows that it often waits for overcast, cooler spring weather that alternates with bright, sunny days. It thrives on weak or stressed strawberry plants, which is why maintaining a healthy strawberry patch is so important.

Prevent wilt with these measures:

  • Always plant in well-drained, fertile soil
  • Always remove old strawberry debris from the garden
  • Avoid growing strawberries in soggy or wet, compacted areas
  • Avoid high nitrogen fertilizer
  • Maintain a robust soil microbiome with healthy additions of quality compost or vermicast
  • Rotate strawberries around the garden and avoiding ever replanting in infected areas
  • Use more resistant cultivars like ‘Albion’ or ‘Camino Real’
  • Source only certified disease-free planting stock

How to Treat

Because verticillium wilt can lie dormant in the soil for many years, it isn’t really a treatable disease. There are no fungicides or fumigants that will eliminate the pathogens. Instead, try to optimize your soil health with plenty of microbially-rich compost, or establish new strawberry raised beds or containers.

Red Stele/Red Core

Red Stele/Red Core
Red Stele/Red Core is the most serious disease of strawberry, including severe stunting that can appear in areas with cool, moist soil conditions.

This root rot disease is mostly a problem in the northern parts of the U.S. It is the worst in heavy clay soils, especially during cool, wet spring weather.

How to Identify

The first signs of red stele include:

  • Leaves lose shiny luster
  • Runner production slows
  • Younger leaves appear metallic or blush-green
  • Older leaves turn red or yellow

As the disease progresses into the hotter and dryer parts summer, red stele shows these definite symptoms:

  • Rapidly wilting and dying plants, starting with lower leaves
  • When pulled up, you will notice very few roots
  • Little to no lateral roots
  • Central root has a naked “rat tail” appearance
  • Strawberry crowns have a dark rotten appaerance

How to Prevent

The soil-dwelling fungus Phytopthora fragariae that causes red stele root rot can persist in your garden for up to 10 years or longer.

But even if the fungus is present, it may not take out your strawberry plants if you take proper preventative measures, including:

  • Only plant strawberries in well-drained soils
  • Amend soil with generous amounts of compost and peat moss to improve drainage
  • Use a broadfork or raised beds to improve drainage before planting
  • Rotate strawberries around the garden every other year
  • Choose highly resistant varieties such as ‘Earliglow’, ‘Midway’, ‘Allstar’, and ‘Surecrop’
  • Only buy certified disease-free planting stock from a reputable source

How to Treat

The key “treatments” for red stele are centered around proper soil water management. While commercial growers may opt to use fungicides, university extension services recommend that gardeners simply pull out sick plants and prioritize replanting in an area with better drained soil.

Charcoal Rot

Charcoal Rot
Charcoal Rot is caused by Macrophomina phaseolina, which has become more prevalent in Florida strawberry fields.

A relatively new disease, the fungus Macrophomina phaseolina was first discovered in Florida strawberry fields within the past two decades. It is distributed worldwide but appears to be mostly a problem in moist southern parts of the U.S

How to Identify

Like many crown rots, charcoal rot causes strawberry plants to become reddish-brown and rotten in the center. They may suddenly wilt and collapse with very little notice.

Key symptoms of charcoal rot include:

  • Wilting foliage in spite of ample water
  • Stunted growth
  • Older leaves drying and dying off while younger leaves remain green
  • Collapsed or dead plants
  • Orange or reddish-brown coloration in center of crowns when cut open[2]

Charcoal rot can look fairly similar to other crown rot diseases, so you may need to cut open the crown to confirm.

How to Prevent

LIke most strawberry diseases, charcoal rot becomes the most severe when plants are under extreme stress.

Preventing Macrophomina crown rot is all about cultural control:

  • Manage plant stress (provide consistent irrigation, drainage, weed and pest management, and moderate fertility)
  • If you’ve had a problem with this disease, try planting tolerant cultivars like ‘Florida Festival’, ‘Amiga’, ‘Naiad’
  • Some research has shown that crop rotation with broccoli may help reduce fungal populations

How to Treat

M. phaseolina survives in garden soil within hard black encasements called sclerotia. They are virtually impossible to get rid of unless you fumigate the soil, which is extremely toxic and not recommended for home gardeners. Your best bet is planting strawberries in a different bed or container and using the preventative methods outlined above.

Leaf Scorch

Leaf Scorch
Leaf Scorch is one of the most common leaf diseases of strawberry, caused by a fungal infection.

Like most of the fungal pathogens mentioned above, leaf scorch (Diplocarpon earlianum) takes hold in extra wet weather. It is one of the most common foliar diseases in strawberries, but it doesn’t typically cause any problems with the fruit itself.

How to Identify

Leaf scorch makes strawberry leaves look like they’ve been burnt by something.

Beginning signs of leaf scorch include:

  • Irregular dark purple or brown spots scattered over leaf surface
  • Appearance of “tar drops” on leaves
  • Spots with purple centers and no defined border (the leaf spot disease has a clear margin)

As the disease progresses, the symptoms intensify and look more unsightly:

  • Large sunken lesions where spots have merged together
  • Purplish to brown colored areas that can girdle leaves from the base
  • Brown, curled up leaves
  • Scorched dying leaves
  • Weakened vigor
  • Dead leaves, flowers, or fruit (in severe infections)

How to Prevent

The preventative measures for leaf scorch are very similar to other fungal strawberry diseases. It all comes down to reducing plant stress and preventing excess moisture:

  • Grow strawberries as annuals (replace plants every years)
  • Increase airflow with adequate spacing (10-12” between each plant)
  • Avoid overhead irrigation
  • Keep weeds under control
  • Avoid excess nitrogen in the spring
  • Remove all foliage at the end of the season (the fungus overwinters on crop debris)
  • Use mulch or landscape fabric
  • Avoid waterlogged or poorly drained soil

How to Treat

When the leaf scorch fungus takes hold of your leaves, there’s not much you can do. It may look unsightly but it probably won’t harm your fruit yields. The only treatment options are removing infected leaves and practicing the preventative measures outlined above.

Alternaria Fruit Spot

Alternaria Fruit Spot
To prevent Alternaria Fruit Spot just try to keep slugs, mites, and other pests away from strawberry and use a floating row cover.

This nasty black berry mold mostly appears in gardens that have been affected by hail, mites, or physical damage to the berries. Only injured fruits are colonized by the pathogen, so protecting your precious strawberry fruits is the name of the game with Alternaria. 

How to Identify

Finally, a disease that is super obvious the second you see it! Alternaria causes strawberry fruits to be ruined by a large black moldy spot with a gross greenish-hue. As opposed to the multiple lesions of Anthracnose, Alternaria black spot is usually a single black mass on the ripe red berry.

Technically caused by the same pathogen as the fruit spot, there is also a form of alternaria that attacks the leaves.  Alternaria leaf spot looks a lot like other leaf spot diseases except it has a signature yellow halo. If you notice the spots with a slightly fuzzy texture or yellow halo, chances are it’s alternaria.

How to Prevent

Alternaria is technically a secondary infection. It can only take hold when the berries have been damaged. To prevent physical wounding of your strawberries while they ripen, take these preventative measures:

  • Keep slugs, mites, and other pests away with biological and cultural controls
  • Use floating row cover
  • Spray diluted neem oil before fruiting to repel mites (their bites are points of entry for the fungus)
  • Protect plants from hail (when possible)
  • Use low plastic tunnels
  • Mulch around plants to prevent fruit from resting on soil surface
  • Avoid cracking, stabbing, or otherwise damaging developing fruits

How to Treat

Once alternaria starts attacking your strawberries, they won’t be edible anyways. Remove infected berries and throw them away. Organic copper fungicides are available as a last resort.

Phomopsis Leaf Blight

Phomopsis Leaf Blight
Phomopsis Leaf Blight infects leaves early in the growing season

Also called strawberry leaf blight, this leaf disease is most problematic in older perennial plantings of strawberries, so if you choose to grow your strawberries as annuals it should not be a problem.

How to Identify

Leaf blight is technically a summertime disease that attacks northern strawberries only during hot, warm months but can be a problem in southern plantings year round.

You know you have leaf blight if:

  • Young leaflets have reddish purple blotches ⅜” to ½” in diameter
  • Signature “V-shaped” lesions
  • Blotches are delineated by leaf veins
  • Central dark brown to purple zone with reddish or lighter brown outer areas
  • Excessive defoliation of plants

How to Prevent

Preventing leaf blight is fairly straightforward:

  • Avoid overhead irrigation
  • Use landscape fabric or straw mulch to keep soil surface covered and prevent splashing
  • Remove all old strawberry debris
  • Prune off infected leaves

How to Treat  

There aren’t any known varieties with resistance to leaf blight nor are there specific fungicides for dealing with the issue. Some organic gardeners have had success with horsetail (Equisetum spp.) compost tea, copper sprays, or neem sprays.

Anthracnose

Anthracnose
Strawberry anthracnose is a dangerous disease that causes concave putrefactive spots on strawberries.

Last but certainly not least, this disease can affect all parts of strawberry plants, including the fruit, crowns, leaves, and runners. It loves warm, humid conditions.

Unfortunately many of the most productive and best-tasting varieties like ‘Albion’ and ‘Chandler’ are susceptible to anthracnose, so prevention is once again crucial for healthy plants.

How to Identify

Anthracnose can be caused by three different fungal species, but they all cause similar symptoms:

  • Brown or black colored spots on green and ripe berries
  • Spots appear water-soaked
  • There are several spots on each berry (rather than just one large spot as in Alternaria black spot)
  • When dry, the fruit may appear mummified
  • Dying or sunken black flower petals
  • Large brown or blackened leaf regions

How to Prevent

The main source of anthracnose infections in gardens is through strawberry transplants. This is why it’s so important to source quality planting stock from a reputable nursery or seed company.

Other preventive measures include:

  • Stay on top of weed control
  • Maintain adequate thinning and spacing to keep air flowing through
  • Straw mulches reduce spore dispersal
  • Avoid plastic mulches (they act like a springboard for spore droplets)
  • Avoid overhead irrigation
  • Don’t work in the garden when plants are wet
  • Remove infected plants and berries as soon as you spot them
  • Rotate strawberries around your garden

How to Treat

The main control options for anthracnose are copper-based fungicides, however copper can build up to toxic levels in the soil and harm earthworms or soil microbes. The best treatment for anthracnose is removing diseased plants and following the sanitation measures described above.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be discouraged by the amount of diseases that can potentially attack your strawberry patch. All strawberry pathogens share one common thread: they attack weak plants!

The easiest way to prevent disease in your garden is by growing robust, healthy strawberries. This starts with a microbially-rich soil that is well drained, rich in compost, and consistently moist. It doesn’t matter if you are growing your strawberries in pots, growing them in raised beds, or right on the ground in your garden.

It also helps to use proper spacing, prune off all strawberry runners, and always remove old plant debris from the garden.

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