A Peruvian plant disease will be used in a world first biocontrol against a notorious weed in the Bay of Plenty and Northland
Lantana blister rust (Puccinia lantanae) was recently released in the Bay and Northland regions in an attempt to control lantana - considered one of the world's 10 worst weeds.
Landcare Research scientists have been searching for biocontrols before it becomes widespread.
So far, they have found pathogenic fungi stand the best chance of fighting the weed in New Zealand.
Insects used as biocontrol agents against lantana in Australia are unlikely to cope with New Zealand conditions.
While more testing is required to determine if the disease is safe to release in Australia, tests came back positive for New Zealand.
More releases of the plant diseases will be made in the Bay of Plenty and Northland in the spring.
Landcare Research imported lantana infected with the disease in spring last year and began mass-rearing it for release.
Landcare Research scientist Maj Padamsee, the lead researcher on the lantana biocontrol project, said the emerging weed posed a serious threat to New Zealand's agricultural industry.
Once established it is extremely difficult to control and can easily overrun farmland.
"Lantana has the potential to become extremely problematic. These releases are pre-emptive to make sure it doesn't get to that point. We're trying to nip lantana in the bud," she said.
"It's the first time the lantana blister rust has been used as a biocontrol anywhere in the world, which makes this release really exciting."
Landcare Research lab technician Chantal Probst, who has been working with Ms Padamsee on the project, said host tests for the plant disease were initially conducted to see if it was a suitable biocontrol to use in Australia, where the weed is a major problem.
The disease is also being used in Australia in an attempt to control lantana.
Another plant disease has also recently been released in the Bay and Northland.
The Brazilian plant disease, called lantana leaf rust (Prospodium tuberculatum) affects the weed's leaves.
Probst said both plant diseases can co-exist on lantana and are expected to complement each other by having slightly different temperature requirements.
"Both rusts can infect the same plant and can complement each other but the blister rust has a warmer temperature range than the leaf rust. We are expecting the blister rust to prefer temperatures in Northland and not do so well in the Bay of Plenty, and the opposite for the leaf rust." she said.
The release of plant diseases were approved by the Environmental Protection Authority in 2012.