Smuts are fungi that are parasitic on grasses and cereals. In the USA alone nearly 140 different species of smuts attack approximately 300 species of grasses.
Many smut fungi exhibit a remarkable degree of specialization not only to certain species of plants but also to certain varieties or strains within those host species. Furthermore there are often strains or races of the smut fungi to contend with. The common stinking smut, for example, has nearly 30 known strains or races, each capable of attacking different varieties of wheat and different strains or varieties of wheat grasses and related grasses.
The smut fungi have a more adverse effect directly (and perhaps indirectly) on their hosts than do the rust fungi. The smuts that attack all or parts of the flowering structures generally destroy the seeds entirely. The leaf smuts and the stem smuts, while only occasionally involving the flowering structures, do nevertheless generally suppress these structures and likewise result in a more or less complete loss of seed on affected plants. The smuts that attack the vegetative structures (that is, the leaf smuts and stem smuts) have a decidedly weakening effect on their host plants and make them more susceptible to other sinister factors in their environment.
Smuts have plagued man ever since crops were first cultivated. They were among the first cereal diseases to come under the scrutiny of early writers on plant diseases and to be studied by plant scientists.