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A Visual Guide to Nutrient Deficiencies in Vegetables and Fruit Trees

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Nutrient deficiencies in plants are pretty common, especially if the soil has a deficiency or excess of minerals. The symptoms are easy to confuse with insect or disease damage, under or overwatering, and with each other. If one deficiency is present, it is common for other deficiencies to be present too.

We are growing in sandy, low CEC soil, and I have to admit searching mineral deficiency descriptions and photos, looking for the “silver bullet” that will cause my trees to look like those in the nearby commercial orchards.

Deficiencies can and do show up in similar ways for different types of plants. They are an interesting indicator of how minerals move or don’t move in the plant and of mineral interactions. The pH of the soil can also affect availability of certain nutrients in the soil and can prevent their uptake in the plant. Biological activity has a strong effect on mineral availability.

Many of the pictures of nutrient deficient plants shown below have been taken under laboratory conditions, where just one nutrient at a time was withheld. Insect damage or disease symptoms can also look like nutrient deficiencies! Or a plant may suffer from multiple deficiencies, adding to the confusion.  Lack of water can mimic nutrient deficiencies.

Any diagnosis of a nutrient deficiency should only be made on the basis of a tissue test – a test where leaves or other plant parts are tested for nutrient content (it is best to test a control “healthy” sample at the same time). The instructions for doing a tissue test are on the test labs’ web site.

Once a mineral deficiency is identified, it’s tempting to just add more of that mineral.  Stop before you do that.  Deficiency symptoms of one mineral may be caused by an excess of another mineral.  Often times the solution is not to add something more, but just stop adding what you’re already putting on. It may be that by increasing the biological activity of your soil, that mineral will become available. There is no substitute for knowledge. Get a soil test and analysis before you jump.

Table of Contents

Nitrogen    Sulfur    Phosphorus    Calcium    Magnesium    Potassium    Manganese    Iron    Boron    Zinc    Copper

Nitrogen Deficiency

Old leaves are affected.

Nitrogen is one of the major nutrients needed by plants — it is used to make chlorophyll — and it is one of the most difficult to find organic sources for. A deficiency can result in yellowing of older leaves first as nitrogen is translocated to new growth in the plant. Stunting of growth can also occur. Different types of plants exhibit different symptoms — not all plant turn yellow.  Lower leaves may dry up and die.


Nitrogen deficient corn on right with normal stand on left

Lemon normal leaf on left  

Nitrogen deficient lemon leaves with normal leaf on left.


Nitrogen deficient tomato leaf on left with normal on right

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Nitrogen deficient peach leaves on left with normal on right


Nitrogen deficient peach tree with reddish older leaves.


Nitrogen deficient cabbage showing reddened older leaves.

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Sulfur Deficiency

Young leaves are affected.

Sulfur deficiencies look a lot like nitrogen deficiencies however sulfur deficiency affects new growth first because sulfur does not translocate easily in the plant.  Look for chlorosis (yellowing) of the veins without the new shoot tips dying back.
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Sulfur deficiency in avocado leaves


Sulfur deficiency in avocado leaves showing new growth yellowing


Sulfur deficiency in peach


Sulfur deficiency in tomato leaves

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Phosphorus Deficiency

Old leaves are affected.

Phosphorus deficiency can occur in cool weather. Notice the typical reddish cast of the older leaves on many of the plant types.  The plant is stunted with short and slender stalks.  Older leaves may dry up and die.


Phosphorus deficiency in apple showing reddening of leaves

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Phosphorus deficiency in corn


Phosphorus deficiency in corn

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Phosphorus deficiency in cucumber with older leaf yellowing.


Phosphorus deficiency in guava


Phosphorus deficiency in peach

Phosphorus deficiency in tomato showing reddened leaf underside.

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Calcium Deficiency

Young leaves are affected.  Terminal buds may die.

Calcium aids in cell wall strength in the plant. When deficient it can contribute to blossom end rot in tomatoes and corky spots in apples.  Deficiencies are most common in very acid soils and can be accompanied by aluminum or manganese toxicity in the plant.
apple calcium deficiency is called bitterpit  

Bitter pit in apples is caused by calcium deficiency

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Calcium deficient apple

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Calcium deficient cucumber leaf showing curling of leaf edge.

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Normal peach leaf on left. Calcium deficient leaves show necrotic (dead) spots in center before leaves dropped.


Calcium deficient peach leaves


Calcium deficient strawberry leaves

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Blossom end rot in tomatoes is caused by insufficient calcium for the cell walls of the expanding fruit, caused by uneven water supply interrupting the flow of calcium.

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Calcium deficient tomato leaf showing nectrotic (dead) spots near the petiole (the little stem on the leaf)


Blossom end rot on tomatoes

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Magnesium Deficiency

Old leaves are affected.  The lower leaves do not dry up but become mottled or yellow.

Magnesium can be deficient in certain soils. As with all deficiencies, it is best to have the results of a soil test and tissue test in hand before treating the symptom. Magnesium is especially hard to get out of the soil once it’s in.

apple cox pippin purple tint and interveinal necrosis  

Magnesium deficient cox pippen apple leaves showing purple tint and necrotic (dead) areas between the veins.


Magnesium deficient apple leaves


Magnesium deficient avocado leaves

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Magnesium deficient citrus leaves


Magnesium deficient citrus leaves showing typical “V”

Magnesium deficient tomato leaf showing yellowing between the veins.

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Potassium Deficiency

Old leaves are affected. Lower leaves do not dry up and die but become mottled or yellow.

Potassium deficiency is not usually a problem for organic growers who apply composted manure, since manure is a good source of available potassium. Potassium deficiency shows up in the edges of the leaves first.
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Potassium deficient apple leaves

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Potassium deficient apple leaves


Potassium deficient apple leaves


Potassium deficient citrus leaves


Potassium deficient corn

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Potassium deficient peach (normal on right)

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Potassium deficient black olive

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Potassium deficient peach

peach normal on left

Potassium deficient peach (normal on left)


Potassium deficient pear
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Potassium deficient tomato

Potassium deficient tomato leaves.  The leaf on the right shows a mild deficiency while the leaf on the left shows a more pronounced deficiency.

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Manganese Deficiency

Young leaves are affected. The terminal buds remain alive and the new leaves are not wilted.

Manganese deficiency produces a leaf yellowing similar to zinc deficiency where the veins of the leaves remain green while the part between the veins turns yellow.  There may be small necrotic (dead) spots on the leaves.  In extreme cases the leaves take on a greyish purple cast.

Manganese deficient cherry leaves


Manganese deficient citrus leaves


Manganese deficient pear leaves


Manganese deficient plum leaves

Manganese deficient tomato leaf.

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Iron Deficiency

Young leaves are affected.  The terminal buds do not die back.

Iron deficiency tends to occur in high pH soil, where the pH is higher than 7.0 or in soils that are severely imbalanced. Its symptoms appear as a yellowing of the leaves in a manner similar to zinc or manganese deficiency, usually with green veins remaining.


Iron deficient apple leaves


Iron deficient cherry leaves


Iron deficient citrus leaves varying from very deficient on the left to normal on the right

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Iron deficient plum branch


Iron deficient plum tree


Iron deficient tomato leaf

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Boron Deficiency

Young leaves are affected.  Terminal buds die back.  Young leaves die back from the base.  Leaves may be twisted.

In the mineral world they say that calcium is the trucker (in that it moves all the other minerals) but boron is the truck driver. This is apparent in the pictures of boron deficient fruits and trees. Somewhere along the line the truck has gone off the road, resulting in strange shapes, hollow or hard cores and variable leaves.
Boron is mobile in the soil and subject to leaching.


Boron deficient strawberry

Boron and calcium cucumber

Boron and calcium deficient cucumber


Boron deficient apricot fruit showing typical striations and cracking.

peach normal on right note rosette and dieback

Boron deficient peach tree. A normal tree is shown on the right. Notice the rosette cluster of leaves at the tip of the branch, and the dieback of leaves on the branch.


Boron deficient citrus


Boron deficient apples (normal apple on right) showing deformed and stunted growth pattern.

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Boron deficient citrus


Boron deficient cauliflower showing typical hollow stem. Boron deficiency can cause hollow stems in all brassicas; cabbage, brocolli, cauliflower.

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Boron deficient citrus fruit showing hard centers and thickened asymmetric rinds

Boron deficient tomato leaf.

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Zinc Deficiency

Young leaves are affected.  Leaf edges do not meet evenly at the base of the leaf where they meet the petiole (the little stem on the leaf).

Zinc is another element that becomes less available at higher pH’s. It can be the limiting factor in tree crops in the drier and more alkaline western US. Zinc deficiency causes a symptom called “little leaf” where new leafs are abnormally small and causes a yellowing of the leaf between the ribs, similar to manganese deficiency but with less smooth edges.

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Zinc deficient citrus leaves with new leaves small, narrow and pointing upwards


Zinc deficient citrus leaf


Zinc deficient loquat

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Zinc deficient peach leaves

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Zinc deficient peach branch (normal branch on left)


Zinc deficient peach branch showing narrow leaves in a rosette similar to boron deficiency.


Zinc deficient pear showing “little leaf”

Extremely zinc deficient tomato leaf showing dead spots between the veins.

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Copper Deficiency

Young leaves are affected.  Young leaves wilt without yellowing.

Copper compounds are often used in the orchard in organically approved sprays (and in conventional sprays) that are used to control fungal disease. It is immobile in the soil, so if copper sprays have been used in the past, it is worth doing a soil test to determine the amount of copper present. Because of its immobility, copper tends to build up and can reach toxic or at least unbalanced levels. However, some soils are deficient in copper. Before doing a soil application it is worth considering whether copper would not be better applied as a fungal disease preventative spray.


Copper deficient citrus leaves

peach normal at right

Copper deficient peach leaves. Normal leaf on right.


Copper deficient tomato leaf

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Image Sources

Pacific Northwest Extension Publications
The Diagnosis of Mineral Deficiencies in Plants by Visual Symptoms
A Companion to Plant Physiology, Fifth Edition by Lincoln Taiz and Eduardo Zeiger
University of Florida Environmental Horticulture
Guide to Common Nutrient Deficiency and Herbicide Injury Symptoms in Citrus
International Plant Nutrition Institute
Spectrum Analytic library Nutrient Deficiencies
U Mass Amhurst Agriculture and Landscape Program / Vegetable program
U of California Fruit Report (for San Joaquin valley)

Crop Guide: Tomato Plant Nutrition:

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