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Got sick plants?

Here's what you should do: Farmers or homeowner can take the plant sample to their county Extension agent for diagnosis.

Find your county extension agent

If the agent isn't able to figure out the cause of the problem, the agent will send a digital picture to the Distance Diagnosis System.


On-call doctors -- K-State offers distance diagnosis for ill plants

When plants get sick, help is just an e-mail away

By Mark Berry



black spots on rose leaves
Photo by Derek Settle.

Black spot is a common fungal disease affecting roses. Dark, circular spots appear on the leaves and eventually, the entire leaf may turn yellow and drop.


There are thousands of things that can go wrong with a plant, from diseases to insects to bad weather. People can't expect university scientists to visit their fields and gardens and lend their expertise. But a program at Kansas State University comes close to doing just that.

The Distance Diagnostic System puts specialists in noxious weeds, insects and plant diseases at the fingertips of K-State extension agents in each of Kansas' 105 counties.

The system uses the Internet to receive information and send back a diagnosis, along with advice on how to solve the problem. Often the response comes back in less than a day. The traditional method of sending physical samples to the university can take up to a week. Time is of the essence when a disease or infestation is taking over a crop field or lawn.

"Sometimes they have a problem they can manage chemically. In that case, the sooner you get out there, the better," said Judy O'Mara, director of the plant disease diagnostic lab at K-State.

K-State extension agents can be called when a farmer or homeowner has sickly plants. The agents use a digital camera to shoot pictures of sickly plants and send them to K-State horticulturalists, plant pathologists, entomologists who study insects, and herbarium staff who can identify noxious weeds. Extension agents also fill out online forms describing the planting date, weather conditions and other clues that might help in the diagnosis of the problem.

"Extension agents come out of varied backgrounds, so they are not all going to have the knowledge base to identify all those problems," O'Mara said.

The distance diagnosis program opened statewide in 2001. K-State receives distance diagnosis requests every day during the growing season, said Joy Pierzynski, K-State extension associate. About half their cases are homeowners with gardening or lawn problems.

"Not everything can be answered this way. There are a lot of times when we need to cut into that sample, to bring it into the lab. But for easy and routine things, it's a good way to get back to the agents within minutes," Pierzynski said.

K-State has received a $63,350 North Central Region IPM grant to develop an image gallery that will give the Distance Diagnosis System a photographic archive of plant diseases, conditions and insects.

K-State personnel also use the distance system to track diseases across the state, like last year's outbreak of a wheat disease called stripe rust.

"It was very unexpected. We were able to watch it develop and we were able to note what parts of the state it was in," O'Mara said. "The Distance Diagnosis System allowed us to catch the disease pretty early and make the decision as to whether this is something the farmers need to take action on."

Summer 2002