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The Fingerprint of a Virus

Michelle Grabowski, University of Minnesota Extension Educator
Cyclamen are popular plants to brighten the home during the winter months. Flowers come in multiple shades of pink, red, lavender and white. When the blooms are spent cyclamen have interesting white patterns on their leaves, varying from an almost complete white horseshoe to regularly spaced white blotches depending on the cultivar. These leaf patterns are normal for cyclamen and make them an interesting foliage plant.
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INSV symptoms on cyclamen
K. Snover-Clift, NPDN

Patterns that indicate a problem
Gardeners should beware, however, of leaf patterns that occur on some leaves but not others. The natural white color patterns on cyclamen leaves should be fairly consistent on all of the plant's leaves. If you are noticing unusual color patterns on some leaves but not others, this may be a symptom of a common viral infection.

Cyclamen are one of many hosts to the plant virus Impatiens Necrotic Spot Virus (INSV). This virus was first discovered on impatiens plants showing dark colored ring spots on its leaves. Since then it has been discovered that INSV can infect over 300 species of plants. Many flowering house plants, annuals, vegetables and even weeds can be infected with INSV.

The symptoms of INSV vary from plant to plant and even between cultivars. Some plants have random brown dead spots on leaves or streaks on stems. Others are stunted, wilt and die. Many have ring spots on leaves. Cyclamen infected with INSV have random brown spots, often with one or more brown rings around them. In many cases, multiple yellow to brown rings form on infected leaves, looking almost like a fingerprint. These types of ring spots are characteristic of viral infection.

How did my plant get infected?
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INSV symptoms on cyclamen
K. Snover-Clift, NPDN

INSV is transferred from plant to plant by western flower thrips (Frankliniella occidentalis), a common insect pest found in greenhouses. Thrips larvae that feed on an INSV infected plant pick up the virus. The virus survives within the thrips and the adult thrips are able to transmit the virus to any plant that they feed on for 5-10 minutes. Once infected with INSV, thrips carry the virus with them for the rest of their lives. Infected house plants could have been infected at the time of purchase or thrips carrying the INSV virus could have been brought into the house on the cyclamen or other plant.

What can I do about INSV?

Unfortunately plants infected with INSV can never be cured. They will carry the virus with them for the rest of their lives and can pass it to other plants if western flower thrips are present. Therefore it is best to destroy infected plants to prevent the spread of the disease. Plants infected with INSV can be thrown into the compost pile because the virus will not survive without a live host plant. If thrips are a problem on this or other houseplants, steps should be taken to control them. Many cultural and chemical control strategies are available to manage thrips and can be learned by reading the UMN extension publication 'House Plant Insect Control'. Remember, only thrips that have fed on an INSV infected plants will be able to transmit the virus, so the presence of thrips alone does not mean that plants are infected with INSV.

The best management strategy is to avoid bringing home plants that are infected with INSV or western flower thrips. Before purchasing a cyclamen, inspect both the upper and lower surface of the leaves for unusual yellow to brown spots, especially ring spots. Thrips may be difficult to see without a hand lens since they are only 1/16th of an inch long and very thin. Tapping the leaves of a plant over a white piece of paper can knock off some insects that you will then be able to see moving across the sheet.

Unfortunately plants recently infected with INSV may not show symptoms for a week up to a month. It is therefore possible to purchase a healthy looking infected plant. To avoid future problems, keep the new plant separate from other plants in the house for about 2-3 weeks. This will allow time for symptoms of the virus or thrips feeding to develop without allowing the problem to spread to other house plants.

For more information about general cyclamen care, read the UMN extension publication 'Cyclamen care'.
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