Nutrient Deficiencies

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A pictorial guide to nutrient deficiencies in fruit trees and vegetables

The taste of tree-ripened nutrient-dense fruit is one of the many joys in my life. I love a flavorful apple at the peak of ripeness, the sweetness of a juicy custard-textured persimmon, a glass of vibrant orange juice. Picking ripe wild blackberries was a late summer ritual in western Oregon where I grew up. Now I have a new ritual; every year I plant fruit trees.

Fruit trees and citrus are an excellent indicator of topsoil and subsoil deficiencies. Since we are growing in sandy, low CEC soil here at Rancho Reinheimer, I have become a connoisseur of mineral deficiency descriptions and photos, searching for the “silver bullet” that will cause my trees to look like those in the nearby commercial orchards. It is this futile search for the “silver bullet” that originally led me to the use of soil testing and mineral balancing, but that’s a different story.

The long and the short of it is, 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. For example, high pH (>7.5) can block the uptake of iron.

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.

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.

Table of contents (references at the bottom of the post).
> Nitrogen
> Sulfur
> Phosphorus
> Calcium
> Magnesium
> Potassium
> Manganese
> Iron
> Boron
> Zinc
> Copper

Nitrogen Deficiencies

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 plant exhibit different symptoms — not all plant turn yellow.


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. In this case the new growth comes in with reddish leaves.


Nitrogen deficient cabbage showing reddened older leaves.

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Sulfur Deficiencies

Sulfur deficiencies look a lot like nitrogen deficiencies however sulfur deficiency affects new growth first because sulfur does not translocate easily in the plant.
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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 Deficiencies

Phosphorus deficiency can occur in cool weather. Our young tomato plants seem to be especially susceptible in early spring. It is characterized by a red or purple cast on new leaves and poor, stunted growth.


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


Phosphorus deficiency in guava


Phosphorus deficiency in peach

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Calcium Deficiencies

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.
apple calcium deficiency is called bitterpit  

Bitter pit in apples is caused by calcium deficiency

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Calcium deficient apple

cucumber ca-deficiency  

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 has calcium deficiency as a contributor

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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 Deficiencies

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”

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Potassium Deficiencies

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

peach 2 normal on right

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

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Manganese Deficiencies

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.

Manganese deficient cherry leaves


Manganese deficient citrus leaves


Manganese deficient pear leaves


Manganese deficient plum leaves

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Iron Deficiencies

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 Deficiencies

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

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Zinc deficiencies

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”

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Copper deficiencies

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)

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