Visual nutrient deficiency symptoms can be a very powerful diagnostic tool for evaluating the nutrient status of plants. However, that a given individual visual symptom is not often sufficient to make a definitive diagnosis of a plant’s nutrient status. Many of the classic deficiency symptoms such as tip burn, chlorosis and necrosis are characteristically associated with more than one mineral deficiency and also with other stresses that by themselves are not diagnostic for any specific nutrient stress. However, their detection is extremely useful in making an evaluation of nutrient status. In addition to the actual observations of morphological and spectral symptoms, knowing the location and timing of these symptoms is a critical aspect of any nutrient status evaluation. Plants do not grow in isolation, they are part of the overall environment and as such they respond to environmental changes as that affect nutrient availability. Also, plants do influence their environment and can contribute to environmental changes, which in turn can affect the nutrient status of the plant.
Stresses such as salinity, pathogens, induce their own characteristic set of visual symptoms. Often, these symptoms closely resemble those of nutrient deficiency. Pathogens often produce an interveinal chlorosis, and salinity stress can cause tip burn. Although at first these symptoms might seem similar in their general appearance to nutrient deficiency symptoms, they do differ in detail and/or in their overall developmental pattern. Pathological symptoms can often be separated from nutritional symptoms by their distribution in a population of affected plants. If the plants are under a nutrient stress, all plants of a given type and age in the same environment tend to develop similar symptoms at the same time. However if the stress is the result of pathology, the development of symptoms will have a tendency to vary between plants until a relatively advanced stage of the pathology is reached.
Plants remove substantial amounts of nutrients from the soil during their normal growth cycle and many long-term environmental changes occur as a result of this process. Effects on the soil go considerably beyond the straight removal or depletion of nutrients. Charge balance must be maintained in the plant-soil system during nutrient uptake. For example when plants are fertilized with ammonia, they acquire most of their nitrogen in the form of the ammonium cation, rather than from the usual nitrate anion. Because nitrate is the only anion used by the plant in large amounts, The immediate effect on the soil may be favorable for some plants, especially acid-loving plants, in that it tends to make iron more available. However, in the long run, lowering the soil pH can be deleterious to plants in that the availability of nutrients will change. A lower soil pH will allow micronutrients to be more readily leached from the soil profile, eventually resulting in deficiencies of nutrients such as Cu and Zn. Additionally, when the pH of the soil drops much below pH 5, the solubility of Al and Mn can increase to such an extent as to become toxic to most plant growth. Plants are often thought of as passive in relation to the environment. For example, iron is a limiting nutrient in many agricultural areas, but it comprises about 3% of the average soil which, if available, would be far in excess of the needs of the average plant. Some plants actively excrete protons, and the resulting decrease in pH increases the solubility of iron in their environment. In addition, other plants excrete phytosiderophores that chelate the soil iron rendering it a more available form for the plants
Pathways of Symptom Development
At 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.
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.
Plant Competition and Induced Deficiencies
When the observed symptoms are the direct result of a nutrient deficiency, the actions needed for correction are relatively straight-forward. However symptoms are often the result of interactions with other environmental factors limiting the availability of the nutrient whose symptoms are expressed. The classic instance is that of iron deficiency induced by an excess of heavy metals in the environment. Transition metals such as Cu, Zn Cr and Ni compete with Fe and each other for plant uptake. Competition for uptake is not specific to Fe and heavy metals but is true for all mineral nutrients that are chemically similar and have similar uptake mechanisms. For example if the availability of Cu or Zn is relatively less than that of Fe, then excessive concentrations of some other metal such as Ni or Cr will induce a deficiency of one of these nutrients rather than Fe. In the case of the macronutrients, excessive amounts of Mg will compete with K for uptake and can possibly induce a K deficiency. The barrenness of serpentine soils is the result of such competition, with the high Mg of these soils inducing a Ca deficiency. The toxicity of a low pH soil is another example of a basic nutrient deficiency. Low pH has a two-fold effect on soil nutrients: It enhances the leaching of cations, reducing their availability in the soil, and the relatively abundant protons in the soil compete with Ca and other cations for uptake. Thus, nutrient deficiencies can be induced by a number of different mechanisms often working in concert to limit the availability of a nutrient.
Although visual diagnostic symptoms are an extremely valuable tool for the rapid evaluation of the nutrient status of a plant, they are only some of the tools available. Other major tools include microscopic studies, spectral analysis, and tissue and soil analysis. Tissue analysis is nutrient-specific but relatively slow; tissues must be sampled, processed and analyzed before the nutrient status can be determined. An analysis of the mineral nutrient content of selected plants tissues, when compared against Critical Level values can be used to evaluate the plant nutrient status at the time of sampling with a relatively high degree of confidence and can be extrapolated to project nutrient status at harvest. Soil analysis is similar to tissue analysis but evaluates the potential supplying power of the soil instead of plant nutrient status. Plant analysis provides information as to what the plant needs, while soil analysis provides information about the status of the nutrient supply.
It is unusual to find any one leaf or even one plant that displays the full array of symptoms that are characteristic of a given deficiency. It is thus highly desirable to know how individual symptoms look, for it is possible for them to occur in many possible combinations on a single plant. Most of the terms used below in the description of deficiency symptoms are reasonably self evident; a few however have a distinct meaning in the nutrient deficiency field. For example, the term chlorotic, which is a general term for yellowing of leaves through the loss of chlorophyll, cannot be used without further qualification because there may be an overall chlorosis as in nitrogen deficiency, interveinal, as in iron deficiency, or marginal, as in calcium deficiency. Another term used frequently in the description of deficiency symptoms is necrotic, a general term for brown, dead tissue. This symptom can also appear in many varied forms, as is the case with chlorotic symptoms.
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.
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.
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 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. At high concentrations, molybdenum has a very distinctive toxicity symptom in that the leaves turn a very brilliant orange.
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. 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.
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. Species such as tomato, 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.
This leaf shows 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.
This leaf shows 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.
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, 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. Plants under chronic calcium deficiency have a much greater tendency to wilt than non- stressed plants.
boron-deficient 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,
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, The most common symptoms of chlorine deficiency are chlorosis and wilting of the young leaves.
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-deficient leaves (see Figure 12) 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.
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. Potassium deficiency is generally characterized by a marginal chlorosis progressing into a dry leathery tan scorch on recently matured leaves, even if potassium is given to the plants. Because potassium is very mobile within the plant, symptoms only develop on young leaves in the case of extreme deficiency. Potassium deficiency can be greatly alleviated in the presence of sodium but the resulting sodium-rich plants are much more succulent than a high potassium plant.
Element and Sufficiency Range
Nitrogen (N) 4.00-5.00%(in Young plants) 3.50-4.00%(in Older plants)
Phosphorus (P) 0.50-1.00%
Potassium (K) 3.50-5.00%
Calcium (Ca) 0.90-1.80%
Magnesium (Mg) 0.50-1.00%
Manganese (Mn) 50-500 ppm
Iron (Fe) 50-300 ppm
Boron (B) 35-60 ppm
Copper (Cu) 8-20 ppm
Zinc (Zn) 20-100 ppm