The Rooting Out Of Phylloxera

Date December 20, 2008

Learn About The Origin Of Phylloxera

Remember the tale of Phylloxera and the three grapevine roots? Yes you do: Phylloxera came over and ate everything in their house but nothing satisfied her, so she ate the three grapevine roots. Then she and her parasitic horde devoured the rest of Europe’s and the world’s grapevine roots nearly driving our precious nectar of the gods from this great big ball of dirt we call home. Then came the Americans to save the day with their rootstocks which were immune to Phylloxera’s appetite for destruction. What no one knew, though, was it was the Americans who introduced Phylloxera to Europe in the first place. Then communism fell and Wal-mart opened a new store in Suburbia.

In the mid 1800s native American vines were shipped to France for experimentation and Phylloxera, unbeknownst to anyone, stowed away on the roots. Once called Phylloxera vastatrix, or the devastator, but now known as Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, Phylloxera is a small greenish-yellow aphid that feeds on the roots of grapevines, thus strangling the plant as its water and nutrients source is cut off.

Phylloxera the DevastatorIn a little under three decades the majority of Europe’s vineyards were gone. Growers were confounded by their dying vines, not knowing Phylloxera was responsible, as the insect is too small to be seen. The French government even offered a sizeable reward for a solution but to no avail.

From there Phylloxera traveled south and hit South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and eventually made its way back to America via California where growers were starting to plant European vines to replace the presumed inferior American varieties.

Phylloxera vastatrix, the DevastatorAbout 20,000 acres of California vineyards were destroyed before the cause was discovered by a Texan named T.V. Munson. Phylloxera, an insect native to America, was responsible for nearly destroying the world’s vineyards.

It was then realized that some native American varieties were immune to the insect and the rootstocks of these plants (Vitis riparia, Vitis rupestria and Vitis berlandieri) were used for grafting to the Vitis vinifera plants of Europe which had no such immunity.

At the turn of the century nearly all the world’s vineyards were uprooted and replanted with the American rootstocks. The world’s vineyards were saved, so to speak. But the Phylloxera rampage didn’t stop there.

It wasn’t until 70 years later that Phylloxera struck again. This time is California. In 1983 vineyards were suddenly ravaged. A specific American rootstock named AxR1 was the victim. Widely planted across Napa Valley and Sonoma, the AxR1 plant was a hybrid of an American vine and Vitis vinifera. The loss was catastrophic and by the late 1990s 16,000 acres of vineyards in California had been uprooted and the Phylloxera insect had moved into Oregon and Washington State.

Phylloxera is still out there, but today winegrowers have a wealth of knowledge at hand to better choose which varieties to grow on which soils. There are clones and rootstocks better suited to withstand the insect’s destruction and much more is known about the origin of Phylloxera and its merciless appetite.

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