Skip to main content Skip to navigation

WSU plant detective solves your farm, garden mysteries

Posted by | February 4, 2016
Rachel Bomberger is WSU's new Plant Diagnostician (Photo by Seth Truscott/WSU).
Rachel Bomberger is WSU’s new Plant Diagnostician (Photo by Seth Truscott/WSU).

No matter how deep the plant problem, Rachel Ann Bomberger is eager to get to the bottom of things.

As the new WSU Plant Diagnostician, she helps Washington farmers, gardeners, crop consultants and Extension agents get answers to their hardest plant health questions.

“I am a plant problem detective,” says Bomberger. “Plant material comes in, and it’s my job to figure out what is causing the problem.”

She explores everything from fungi, bacteria and nematodes to water issues and mechanical and chemical damage.

Based out of the reopened Plant Diagnostic Clinic in Pullman’s Johnson Hall, Bomberger puts growers in touch with WSU and USDA researchers and uses her sleuthing skills to solve some real horticultural humdingers.

Here, she answers questions about her problem-solving role:

Q: Are you more useful for the large farmer or the small grower?

A: Both. The scale of the farm operation doesn’t matter. I am here as a resource for homeowners, nurseries, orchards and greenhouse operations.

Q: Do you watch out for particular diseases or bugs?

A: I am always concerned about exotic diseases and pests, which often have drastic effects on plants that have no resistance to them. I keep a running list of diseases and pests of concern to be aware of. That way, we can spot them before serious damage happens. I also keep tabs on weather and environmental changes—these impact which diseases are likely to be problems in our area.

Q: What’s the hardest plant disease challenge you’ve solved?

A: At the Nevada Department of Agriculture, I received a bizarre sample of mesquite tree leaves with small spots of silvery and orange ooze that would dry like thread projecting up from the leaves. This ooze was gluing the leaves into tight bundles and causing lots of reduced growth. It was only present for five weeks, and none of the neighbors with the same tree had this problem. We couldn’t find any descriptions of similar symptoms, and had no references of what this fungus could be. To finally determine what it was, we collaborated with national mycologists. It ended up being a disease that hadn’t been seen in more than 50 years.

Q: What’s satisfying about this job?

A: I get to solve problems, and I have an immediate impact. When I figure out the cause of a problem, I get to provide management strategies to help protect plant health. I love doing diagnostics; I feel like I’m helping. I also act as a liaison between grower’s problems and the researchers and experts at WSU and in the Pacific Northwest.

What’s something surprising about what you do?

A: The range of technology we use! I spend a lot of time looking at things under the microscope, but I also use advanced techniques. If you think about shows like CSI, where they are looking at genes, DNA, sequencing or computer programs to solve cases—that’s what we do too, just not in an hour.

Plant Diagnostic Clinic

The Plant Diagnostic Clinic wants to add services that will best benefit Washington growers, so feel free to contact Bomberger if you are looking for a specific test. The Pullman clinic handles samples from eastern Washington, while the Puyallup clinic processes samples from western Washington. Fees are $25 for information inquiries and $40 for more extensive testing, such as culturing.

For more information, visit http://plantpath.wsu.edu/diagnostics/ or contact Bomberger at rachel.bomberger@wsu.edu, 509-335-0619.