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How can deficiency symptoms in plants be recognized? 

Written by Jaap Lubbersen | Last update: 12-02-2021

Plant roots can only take in nutrients if those are dissolved in water and available in the soil or substrate. Various factors such as the acidity of the crop, can cause nutrients (such as magnesium, calcium and various trace elements) not to dissolve properly. This leads to insufficient intake of nutrients, which can cause deficiency symptoms. In this article, our fertilizer specialists explain how deficiency symptoms occur for each nutritional element and how they can be recognized. 


plays various roles in internal processes in the plant. For example, it is important for the water balance of a plant; it opens and closes the stomata. It also gives the plant cells firmness and structure.Potassium deficiency


A low potassium level affects the water balance of a plant, e.g. the evaporation. This causes the plant to hang limp in dry conditions. It can also cause the edge of the leaves to turn yellow and eventually die. The older leaves are the first ones to undergo this process. The stems also become thinner and the buds and/or fruits becomes smaller. 

An excess amount of potassium often occurs in combination with a lack of calcium and magnesium, because the intake of these elements is hindered.


Calcium is particularly important for a plant’s growth. It strengthens the cell walls and cell membranes, improving the plant’s stability. Calcium is a low-mobility element. That is why there should always be a sufficient amount of calcium around the roots, so that the plant can absorb enough of this nutrient. 

A low amount of calcium is mainly visible in the least evaporating parts of the plant. It causes immaturity, for example for small flowers. Glassy spots can be found on young leaves, flowers and fruit, and the edges of the leaves can die. 

An excess amount of calcium slows down the growth of a plant. It reduces the intake of other nutrients, in particular iron and magnesium. 


Magnesium is the most important element for the production of chlorophyll and is essential to plants. It is also a building block for enzymes and cell walls and thus provides strength in the plant. 

A low amount of magnesium causes a slower production of chlorophyll and a faster decomposition of chlorophyll in the older leaves, causing the leaves to turn yellow in between veins. When a serious deficiency has taken over the plant, the young leaves will also turn yellow. Often a magnesium deficiency occurs due to an excess amount of potassium and/or calcium. 

An excess amount of magnesium is often combined with a lack of calcium. Magnesium opposes the absorption, meaning functioning of calcium. 


Nitrogen plays an important role in the metabolism of a plant and in the production of proteins and chlorophyll. It stimulates the vegetative growth of the plant. 

A small amount of nitrogen causes the entire leaf, including the veins of the plant, to turn yellow. The older leaves are at greatest risk. In addition, the above-ground growth of the plant is slowed down in a situation where a nitrogen deficiency occurs. As a result, the roots will grow strongly. 


An excess amount of nitrogen does not have to have a negative influence, however lowers the plant’s resistance.


Phosphorus is important for energy transport in the cells of a plant. It forms a building block for the cell walls, DNA and all kinds of proteins and enzymes in the plant. Therefore, this element is important for root production, sprigs, flowers and seeds. In addition, phosphorus stimulates root growth. 

A deficiency of phosphorus causes the older leaves to become dark (purple). The plant also produces fewer roots and the roots produced do not develop as well they should. 

An excess amount of phosphorus often occurs in combination with a lack of zinc, copper and/or magnesium, because the intake of these elements is obstructed.


Sulphur and nitrogen provide the production of proteins in a plant. These proteins are important in the production of chlorophyll, which is important for photosynthesis. It also stimulates root growth and strength of the plant. Sulphur is part of the fragrances of a plant. 

A deficiency of sulphur results in lower and slower growth. Also, a complete yellow discolouring of the leaves can be seen: the young leaves are first and followed by the older ones.

An excess amount of sulphur obstructs a plant’s growth, because it increases the level of salt in the feed water. It can also cause the plant to become darker in colour


Iron ensures that a plant can produce chlorophyll, so that photosynthesis can take place. It also has a major influence on energy management and the development of the growth point in the roots of plants. 

An iron level that is too low causes the chlorophyll in the youngest leaves in the top part of the plant to decompose. As a result, the leaves of the plant become lighter and lighter: initially light green, but sometimes yellow or even white. The veins of the leaves remain green. Iron deficiency often occurs in combination with too much manganese, as these elements repel each other. 

If the iron level is too high, a shortage of manganese will occur.


Molybdenum is required in the development of various enzymes needed for protein production. It is also a building block of certain plant hormones. Molybdenum deficiency

A low amount of molybdenum is especially visible in the youngest leaves of the plant. They remain small and, yellow between the veins and they can curl. Deficiencies can also occur on older leaves yellow discolouration occurs here. 

An excessive level of molybdenum leads to copper deficiency, because these substances do not go together well. It also leads to the yellowing of the crop. A molybdenum deficiency, however, is not common.


Copper contributes to protein synthesis in the plant. Proteins are important in the production of chlorophyll, which is important for photosynthesis. Copper also strengthens the cell walls, contributing to plant resistance. Copper deficiency
Finally, it contributes to the production of vitamins and to the lignification of parts of the plant.

A low amount of copper can lead to the decomposition of the chlorophyll, causing it to turn yellow or grey in between the veins. If this happens, the crop will also start hanging. A copper deficiency also obstructs the flowering of a plant: sprigs, meristems and shoots die.

An excessive level of copper is rare. When this does occur, it is often in combination with an iron deficiency. Too much copper obstructs the intake of iron.


Zinc ensures a good development of chlorophyll, the extension of the stem and veins of the plant, and a higher resistance. In addition, many enzyme systems in the plant need zinc to function properly. Zinc deficiency

A low level of zinc is especially seen in the young leaves in the top section of a plant. Chlorotic stains are visible on these leaves. Another consequence of a zinc deficiency can be that a plant does not grow sufficiently, or even the occurence of dwarfism.

Too much zinc often leads to an iron deficiency. The leaves of the plant turn yellow, especially within the top part of the plant.


Manganese ensures good cell division, photosynthesis and metabolism in the plant. It’s also a building block of enzymes and lingine. This is a substance that strengthens the cell walls resulting in a stable crop.
Manganese deficiency
 A low level of manganese leads to reduced root growth, obstruction of growth of leaves and eventually dying of the leaves. It also causes breaking down and turning yellow of chlorophyll in the plant's leaves. A manganese deficiency is seen just below the top section of the plant. It often occurs in combination with an excess amount of iron, because these elements repel to each other.

Too much manganese leads to a of iron. It also causes dark spots on the older leaves of the plant.


Boron plays an important role in various metabolic processes. In addition, it is a building block of cell walls and of enzymes that regulate the cell division. Boron also stimulates the development of growth points of the plant.Boron deficiency

A deficiency of boron makes the crop fragile, since it interferes with the cell membranes. The intake mechanism of the plant is affected by this and the growth point does not grow out. Foliar malformation of the young leaf and fruit malformation might also occur. 

Too much boron causes the leaves of the plant to discolour and dry out locally. The leaf will also be convex/round.

Applying Chelates

To make nutrients more soluble and to prevent the occurrence of deficiency symptoms as much as possible, you can choose to administer these elements in the form of chelates. These are organic elements that hold nutrients with a sort of claw, so that the element remains in solution and available to the plant. Our fertilizer specialists can advise you on this. 

Any questions about your deficiency symptom?

Do you have any questions about crop care, or would you like advice? Then contact one of our crop care specialists, or ask your question using the form below. We'll respond within 24 hours on working days.

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Jaap Lubbersen About Jaap Lubbersen

Jaap Lubbersen is an internal crop care product specialist at Royal Brinkman and has had over 13 years of experience in glass horticulture. "As an internal product specialist, I deal with growers' issues on a daily basis. Every time again it is a challenge to seek the proper solution, in cooperation with the grower, whether it is about healthy and vibrant cultivation, legislation or safety."

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