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Wildfire brings more ozone problems

Blotchy green citrus leaves
These citrus leaves show ozone damage. (Photo
courtesy UC IPM)

Hot, smoky conditions
create high pollutant levels

Plants may be able to cope with wildfire smoke better than people. But ozone is another matter.

After prolonged exposure to two weeks of wildfire smoke, foliage on many plants in the greater Sacramento area are showing signs of ozone damage. It starts out as stippling – little dots all over large leaves. Or parts of leaves may look like they were sun-bleached white or silver.

In my Sacramento garden, I noticed it in particular on a large dahlia plant. Besides funky foliage, its vivid red petals also were bleached white at the tips. That bleaching was accompanied by a build-up of soot on its leaves.

Ozone is what happens when wildfire ash and other pollutants get “cooked” by triple-digit heat. It makes our eyes water and throats hurt. And there’s a lot of it right now.

According to Sacramento region air quality monitors, our air quality is rated “very unhealthy” for the next several days with particle levels remaining high, especially in El Dorado and Placer counties. Through at least Thursday, Sacramento is forecast to rate 250 on the Air Quality Index. (“Good” is below 50.)

While ozone high up in the atmosphere is a good thing, ground-level ozone can be dangerous. In our case, it’s created by a combination of wildfire ash and other pollutants (usually nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds), intensified by bright sunlight and triple-digit heat.

Ground-level ozone can prevent a plant's leaves from properly doing their job. Ozone enters the leaf's stomata and burns the leaf's tissue.

Signs of ozone damage include dark stippling and bleaching of foliage. Plants lose their vigor and stop blooming or yielding fruit. Ozone damage weakens the plant and makes it much more susceptible to pests and disease.

Worried about the long-term effects of too much ozone, researchers and the National Park Service surveyed plants in national parks across the country and found hundreds of species with ozone sensitivity from ash and asters to sycamores and yarrow. Maple, cherry, polar and plum trees are all on the ozone-sensitive list. Find it here:

Meanwhile, keep plants hydrated. Wash ash and soot from leaves.  Lower temperatures later this week may bring some ozone relief, too.


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For week of Dec. 10:

Take advantage of these dry but crisp conditions. It’s time to get out the rake!

* Rake leaves away from storm drains and keep gutters clear.

* Fallen leaves can be used for mulch and compost. Chop up large leaves with a couple of passes with a lawn mower.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they’re dormant. Without their foliage, trees are easier to prune.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Make sure to take frost precautions with new transplants and sensitive plants. Mulch, water and cover tender plants in the late afternoon to retain warmth.

* Succulent plants are at particular risk if temperatures drop below freezing. Don’t water succulents before frost; cover instead. Use cloth sheets, not plastic. Make sure to remove coverings during the day.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.

* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eaves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.

* Plant garlic (December's the last chance -- the ground is getting cold!) and onions for harvest in summer.

* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.

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