University of Maryland Extension

Nutrient Deficiency - Trees and Shrubs

leaf yellowing on a rhododendron

Back to Common Problems - Trees and Shrubs

With few exceptions visual symptoms of nutrient deficiencies are seldom seen in woody landscape plants. Except for highly alkaline soils, where iron and manganese will be unavailable, leaf color will generally look normal. Subnormal shoot growth and leaf size may be a more accurate indicator of low nutrient levels. Soil tests are also an important tool for deficiency diagnosis. In addition, nutrient symptoms are very difficult to distinguish from other symptoms associated with insects or disease, other adverse soil conditions such as compaction or discontinuous texture layers, and improper irrigation practices. Nutrient deficiencies are of more importance in newly planted and young plants where rapid growth is desired.

A general rule of thumb regarding nutrient deficient symptoms is that nutrients that are mobile will show deficiency symptoms first on the older foliage and less mobile nutrients will show deficiency symptoms first on the younger foliage. The following is a partial list of deficiency symptoms for the most common nutrients.

  • Nitrogen deficiency symptoms are seen first on older leaves. Deficient leaves are lighter green, smaller, may show earlier fall color or more intense fall color, and may also drop earlier. Shoots and branches will be shorter and may also be fewer in number.
  • Phosphorus deficiency symptoms are first seen on older foliage. Deficient leaves are dark green on the upper surface but may appear bronze to purple on the lower surface. Leaves will be smaller than normal and may be distorted. They will also drop early. Shoots can appear normal length but will be small in diameter.
  • Potassium deficiency symptoms are first seen on the older leaves. Deficient leaves have marginal or interveinal chlorosis followed by scorching that moves between the main veins. Leaves may also be crinkled and roll upward. Shoot tips may die back late in the season.
  • Calcium deficiency symptoms are first seen on the new leaves. Deficient leaves will be chlorotic and small with necrotic tips. Shoots are short and will show terminal dieback.
  • Magnesium deficiency symptoms are first seen on older leaves. Deficient leaves are thin and brittle, drop prematurely, and show interveinal and marginal chlorosis. Leaves eventually will develop interveinal reddening and necrosis. Shoots may appear normal unless the deficiency is severe.
  • Sulfur deficiency symptoms appear first on the older leaves. Leaves will be smaller and lighter green than normal. Shoots will be shorter than normal. Symptoms may resemble nitrogen deficiency symptoms.
  • Iron deficiency symptoms are first seen in the young leaves. Leaves will be light green with contrasting dark narrow green veins. Leaves may eventually show marginal scorching and bleaching. Symptoms will be more severe during cool wet spring weather. Shoot growth may be normal but small in diameter. Terminal dieback may occur under severe deficiency conditions.
  • Manganese deficiency symptoms first appear on the older leaves. Leaves are light green with darker green bands along the veins. Leaves will eventually develop interveinal necrosis and look water stressed. Shoot growth will be less than normal.

Photo Gallery

nutrient deficiency

yew nutrient deficiency

Leaf yellowing due to nutrient deficiencies Nutrient deficiencies on yew
nutrient deficiency pine
Nutrient deficiencies on pine
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