Plant Nutrient Deficiencies with Photos
Written by: Wade Berry, UCLA
Pathways of Symptom DevelopmentAt first glance, it would appear that the distinction of deficiency symptoms for the 13 known essential mineral nutrients should be relatively simple. But such an assumption is incorrect. In fact, the deficiency symptoms are quite complex because each nutrient has a number of different biological functions and each function may have an independent set of interactions with a wide range of environmental parameters. In addition, the expression of these symptoms varies for acute or chronic deficiency conditions. Acute deficiency occurs when a nutrient is suddenly no longer available to a rapidly growing plant. Chronic deficiency occurs when there is a limited but continuous supply of a nutrient, at a rate that is insufficient to meet the growth demands of the plant.
Most of the classic deficiency symptoms described in textbooks are characteristic of acute deficiencies. The most common symptoms of low-grade, chronic deficiencies are a tendency towards darker green leaves and stunted or slow growth. Typically most published descriptions of deficiency symptoms arise from experiments conducted in greenhouses or growth chambers where the plants are grown in hydroponics or in media where the nutrients are fully available. In these conditions, nutrients are readily available while present, but when a nutrient is depleted, the plant suddenly faces an acute deficiency. Thus, hydroponic studies favor the development of acute deficiencies.
In experiments designed to study micronutrient deficiency symptoms, micronutrients are usually omitted from the nutrient solution. Micronutrients are often present in the seed or as contaminants in the environment, so a plant of adequate size will exhaust these trace amounts of micronutrient and develop characteristic acute deficiency systems. When deficiency symptoms of macronutrients are sought, the macronutrient is removed suddenly from a suitable sized rapidly growing plant. Alternatively the plant can initially be given a one-time supply of the nutrient that is sufficient for a limited amount of growth. Because macronutrients are continuously required in relatively large amounts by rapidly growing plants, the available nutrients will be rapidly depleted, resulting in an acute deficiency.
In natural systems, the plant encounters many degrees and types of stresses that result in different types of symptoms occurring over time. Perhaps the most common nutrient deficiency in natural environments is the case of a limited nutrient supply that is continuously renewed at a low rate from soil weathering processes. In such cases, the limited nutrient availability results in chronic nutrient deficiency symptoms.
Magnesium. The Mg-deficient leaves show advanced interveinal chlorosis, with necrosis developing in the highly chlorotic tissue. In its advanced form, magnesium deficiency may superficially resemble potassium deficiency. In the case of magnesium deficiency the symptoms generally start with mottled chlorotic areas developing in the interveinal tissue. The interveinal laminae tissue tends to expand proportionately more than the other leaf tissues, producing a raised puckered surface, with the top of the puckers progressively going from chlorotic to necrotic tissue. In some plants such as the Brassica (i.e., the mustard family, which includes vegetables such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rape, rutabaga and turnip), tints of orange, yellow, and purple may also develop.
Manganese. These leaves show a light interveinal chlorosis developed under a limited supply of Mn. The early stages of the chlorosis induced by manganese deficiency are somewhat similar to iron deficiency. They begin with a light chlorosis of the young leaves and netted veins of the mature leaves especially when they are viewed through transmitted light. As the stress increases, the leaves take on a gray metallic sheen and develop dark freckled and necrotic areas along the veins. A purplish luster may also develop on the upper surface of the leaves. Grains such as oats, wheat, and barley are extremely susceptible to manganese deficiency. They develop a light chlorosis along with gray specks which elongate and coalesce, and eventually the entire leaf withers and dies.
Molybdenum. These leaves show some mottled spotting along with some interveinal chlorosis. An early symptom for molybdenum deficiency is a general overall chlorosis, similar to the symptom for nitrogen deficiency but generally without the reddish coloration on the undersides of the leaves. This results from the requirement for molybdenum in the reduction of nitrate, which needs to be reduced prior to its assimilation by the plant (see textbook Chapter 12). Thus, the initial symptoms of molybdenum deficiency are in fact those of nitrogen deficiency. However, molybdenum has other metabolic functions within the plant, and hence there are deficiency symptoms even when reduced nitrogen is available. In the case of cauliflower, the lamina of the new leaves fail to develop, resulting in a characteristic whiptail appearance. In many plants there is an upward cupping of the leaves and mottled spots developing into large interveinal chlorotic areas under severe deficiency. At high concentrations, molybdenum has a very distinctive toxicity symptom in that the leaves turn a very brilliant orange.
Nitrogen. The chlorotic symptoms shown by this leaf resulted from nitrogen deficiency. A light red cast can also be seen on the veins and petioles. Under nitrogen deficiency, the older mature leaves gradually change from their normal characteristic green appearance to a much paler green. As the deficiency progresses these older leaves become uniformly yellow (chlorotic). Leaves approach a yellowish white color under extreme deficiency. The young leaves at the top of the plant maintain a green but paler color and tend to become smaller in size. Branching is reduced in nitrogen deficient plants resulting in short, spindly plants. The yellowing in nitrogen deficiency is uniform over the entire leaf including the veins. However in some instances, an interveinal necrosis replaces the chlorosis commonly found in many plants. In some plants the underside of the leaves and/or the petioles and midribs develop traces of a reddish or purple color. In some plants this coloration can be quite bright. As the deficiency progresses, the older leaves also show more of a tendency to wilt under mild water stress and become senescent much earlier than usual. Recovery of deficient plants to applied nitrogen is immediate (days) and spectacular.
Phosphorus. These phosphorus-deficient leaves show some necrotic spots. As a rule, phosphorus deficiency symptoms are not very distinct and thus difficult to identify. A major visual symptom is that the plants are dwarfed or stunted. Phosphorus deficient plants develop very slowly in relation to other plants growing under similar environmental conditions but without phosphorus deficiency. Phosphorus deficient plants are often mistaken for unstressed but much younger plants. Some species such as tomato, lettuce, corn and the brassicas develop a distinct purpling of the stem, petiole and the under sides of the leaves. Under severe deficiency conditions there is also a tendency for leaves to develop a blue-gray luster. In older leaves under very severe deficiency conditions a brown netted veining of the leaves may develop.
Sulfur. This leaves show a general overall chlorosis while still retaining some green color. The veins and petioles show a very distinct reddish color. The visual symptoms of sulfur deficiency are very similar to the chlorosis found in nitrogen deficiency. However, in sulfur deficiency the yellowing is much more uniform over the entire plant including young leaves. The reddish color often found on the underside of the leaves and the petioles has a more pinkish tone and is much less vivid than that found in nitrogen deficiency. With advanced sulfur deficiency brown lesions and/or necrotic spots often develop along the petiole, and the leaves tend to become more erect and often twisted and brittle.
Zinc. This leaves show an advanced case of interveinal necrosis. In the early stages of zinc deficiency the younger leaves become yellow and pitting develops in the interveinal upper surfaces of the mature leaves. Guttation (see textbook Figure 4.5) is also prevalent. As the deficiency progress these symptoms develop into an intense interveinal necrosis but the main veins remain green, as in the symptoms of recovering iron deficiency. In many plants, especially trees, the leaves become very small and the internodes shorten, producing a rosette like appearance.
Boron. These boron-deficient leaves show a light general chlorosis. The tolerance of plants to boron varies greatly, to the extent that the boron concentrations necessary for the growth of plants having a high boron requirement may be toxic to plants sensitive to boron. Boron is poorly transported in the phloem of most plants, with the exception of those plants that utilize complex sugars, such as sorbitol, as transport metabolites. In a recent study, (see Brown et al. 1999) tobacco plants engineered to synthesize sorbitol were shown to have increased boron mobility, and to better tolerate boron deficiency in the soil.
Calcium. These calcium-deficient leaves show necrosis around the base of the leaves. The very low mobility of calcium is a major factor determining the expression of calcium deficiency symptoms in plants. Classic symptoms of calcium deficiency include blossom-end rot of tomato (burning of the end part of tomato fruits), tip burn of lettuce, blackheart of celery and death of the growing regions in many plants. All these symptoms show soft dead necrotic tissue at rapidly growing areas, which is generally related to poor translocation of calcium to the tissue rather than a low external supply of calcium. Very slow growing plants with a deficient supply of calcium may re-translocate sufficient calcium from older leaves to maintain growth with only a marginal chlorosis of the leaves. This ultimately results in the margins of the leaves growing more slowly than the rest of the leaf, causing the leaf to cup downward. This symptom often progresses to the point where the petioles develop but the leaves do not, leaving only a dark bit of necrotic tissue at the top of each petiole. Plants under chronic calcium deficiency have a much greater tendency to wilt than non-stressed plants.
Chloride. These leaves have abnormal shapes, with distinct interveinal chlorosis. Plants require relatively high chlorine concentration in their tissues. Chlorine is very abundant in soils, and reaches high concentrations in saline areas, but it can be deficient in highly leached inland areas. The most common symptoms of chlorine deficiency are chlorosis and wilting of the young leaves. The chlorosis occurs on smooth flat depressions in the interveinal area of the leaf blade. In more advanced cases there often appears a characteristic bronzing on the upper side of the mature leaves. Plants are generally tolerant of chloride, but some species such as avocados, stone fruits, and grapevines are sensitive to chlorine and can show toxicity even at low chloride concentrations in the soil.
Copper. These copper-deficient leaves are curled, and their petioles bend downward. Copper deficiency may be expressed as a light overall chlorosis along with the permanent loss of turgor in the young leaves. Recently matured leaves show netted, green veining with areas bleaching to a whitish gray. Some leaves develop sunken necrotic spots and have a tendency to bend downward. Trees under chronic copper deficiency develop a rosette form of growth. Leaves are small and chlorotic with spotty necrosis.
Iron. These iron-deficient leaves show strong chlorosis at the base of the leaves with some green netting. The most common symptom for iron deficiency starts out as an interveinal chlorosis of the youngest leaves, evolves into an overall chlorosis, and ends as a totally bleached leaf. The bleached areas often develop necrotic spots. Up until the time the leaves become almost completely white they will recover upon application of iron. In the recovery phase the veins are the first to recover as indicated by their bright green color. This distinct venial re-greening observed during iron recovery is probably the most recognizable symptom in all of classical plant nutrition. Because iron has a low mobility, iron deficiency symptoms appear first on the youngest leaves. Iron deficiency is strongly associated with calcareous soils and anaerobic conditions, and it is often induced by an excess of heavy metals.
Potassium. Some of these leaves show marginal necrosis (tip burn), others at a more advanced deficiency status show necrosis in the interveinal spaces between the main veins along with interveinal chlorosis. This group of symptoms is very characteristic of K deficiency symptoms.