Your Guide to Easy Fruit Tree Care

Learn to Read Tree Leaves to Prevent Tree Health Problems

Sugar maple tree with orange leaves in July
Why did the leaves on a sugar maple in Toronto go orange in July, long before autumn? This could be caused by drought stress as sugar maples are shallow rooted trees.

Leaves and Tree Health

Autumn is on the way and here in Ontario we're just starting to see those beautiful leaf colours in vibrant shades of red, yellow and orange. Leaves notify us that the winter is approaching as they draw the nutrients out of their leaves and into their roots for winter storage.. But leaves tell us a lot more than that all through the growing season. Tree leaves tell us about problems with tree health. 

Last year, for instance, I noticed that the leaves on a beautiful sugar maple in our local park turned yellow. If it happened in October I wouldn't have worried. The problem was that all the leaves on that tree changed colour in July! It was a hot summer and winter was months away.

So I went closer and saw that something else was going on. The leaves were yellow with brown blotches moving in from the edges and tips. This is called leaf necrosis, It means the leaves are dying and if nothing is done the tree could die too.

Leaf necrosis is a classic sign of drought stress. This summer was very hot and dry. And some types of maple trees are shallow rooted so they experience drought stress before other trees. They are like the canary in the coal mine, and their symptoms tell us to get busy watering if we want all our beautiful trees to survive and thrive.

Leaves can tell us so much about tree health. In addition to signalling drought stress, they can show us if the tree is experiencing nutritional deficiencies or even if it is grappling with pest and disease problems. Our job as gardeners is to recognize the symptoms and to fulfill our trees’ needs before its too late.

Tree Leaves and Drought Stress

When brown blotches are working their way in from the edges and tips of your tree’s leaves, it’s very likely to be drought stress. But what’s causing the problem? If it’s a dry summer, it may just mean that you need to water your tree. But these symptoms can also result from too much salt in the soil.

Either way, once you see those blotches appearing, it’s time to take action! Set up a soaker hose and give your tree a long, slow water once a week or so (let the soil dry out before watering again) to restore tree health. Water will also help wash excess salt out of the soil.

If you have an apple or pear tree, be careful not to confuse drought stress with a quickly spreading disease called fire blight. With this nasty bacterial disease, the leaves don’t get blotchy, they look burnt and entire branches die back starting from the tender branch tips.

If you see this, carefully prune off infected branches back to the trunk and put them in garbage bags in the garbage, not in the compost. Then sterilize your pruners with rubbing alcohol before using them again on any other tree.

Interveinal chlorosis on hickory leaves. Tree leaves problems.
Interveinal chlorosis on a hickory leaf is evident when the veins stay green while the area in between the veins turns yellow.

Tree Leaves That Indicate Nutritional Deficiencies

Late last summer, I took a walk in a nearby arboretum and saw a very unusual looking hickory tree. Instead of being green, its leaves were striped with yellow! It was beautiful, but sadly this hickory tree was experiencing a serious problem.

Interveinal chlorosis is when your leaf goes yellow, but only in between leaf veins. The leaf veins remain green. This is usually a sign that the tree doesn’t have enough manganese or iron, both essential nutrients when it comes to tree health and photosynthesis.

There are a number of reasons why this may be happening. Those nutrients may be lacking in the soil. Or it could be a pH problem.

PH, or soil acidity, influences how easy it is for a plant to take up nutrients from the soil. If the pH is wrong, it’s like going to an all-you-can eat buffet with your hands tied behind your back. The food is there. But you just can’t get at it.

Alternatively, this problem could be the due to too much phosphorus in the soil! While phosphorus is an important nutrient for healthy plant growth, too much of it is toxic to plants. This may be the result of the over-application of fertilizers.

So, how do you know what is responsible for the problem? Get a soil test. It will tell  you the levels of iron, manganese, phosphorus and more. Then you can help your tree by amending the soil according to the lab’s instructions.

Sometimes you’ll see a leaf turns completely yellow during the growing season including the veins. This is called chlorosis and in contrast with interveinal chlorosis this could be a sign of nitrogen deficiency.

Soil tests are rarely good indicators of nitrogen in the soil since nitrogen levels are constantly changing. In this case consider amending your tree’s soil with quality compost in the spring or summer to see if that helps.

Tree Leaves Problems include drought stress as shown in this maple tree.
Close up of the leaves on a sugar maple with drought stress showing brown blotches (necrosis) that starts from the edges and tips of the leaves and moves inwards. (Photo credit: OrchardPeople.com)

Tree Leaves and Disease Problems

In Ben Nobleman Park in Toronto, where I planted a community orchard in 2009, I learned my lesson about disease on leaves early on. In the first year I saw a few orange spots on the leaves of one of our young pear trees. I ignored them.

The next year there were more spots and this time on all three trees. By the end of that summer the trees were covered with orange spots and looked like three miserable kids covered with chicken pox.

Pear trellis rust on the leaves of a pear tree. Tree leaves problems | Orchard People
Trellis Pear Rust on the leaves of a Pear Tree in Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard.

Only then did I do my research and I discovered that our pear trees were infected with a fungal disease called pear trellis rust.

But that’s just one spotty disease that trees can experience. Over the years I’ve seen all sorts of trees with unhappily spotted leaves. They may be big or small, brown or green or red, but they are never a good sign. Often they are fungal diseases.

The important thing here is that if you see any unusual spots on the leaves of your tree, go online and research the problem early on. Some fungal diseases can be nipped in the bud with applications of an organic fungicide like garden sulphur.

In Ben Nobleman Park, by the time we acted it was too late. Our young pear trees were too weak and stressed and would never fully recover so we dug them out and planted apple trees instead.

Leaf miner damage on a leaf. Tree leaves problems | Orchard People
To find evidence of leaf miners, hold the leaf up to the light and you may see the tunneling leaf miner and its frass (poop)

Pest Damage on Tree Leaves

Finally pests. You have got to admit, some of them are really crafty. Some, like Japanese beetles, turn our trees leaves into these beautiful lace patterns as they nibble away. Others create horrible seething tents of larvae (think of tent caterpillars) that feed on young leaves.

Some problems are more subtle. If a leaf looks unhealthy, pluck it off and hold it up to the sun so you can see through it. You may see a leaf miner tunneling through the leaf leaving frass (insect larvae poop) in brown blotches here and there.

What do you do with pests? Look them up online, and then choose your option. You can smoosh them as you see them. You can burn them (an option for tent caterpillars). Or if there’s just a few insect problems, you can also leave them. After all, those pests are trying to survive – just like we humans are.

Learn more about protecting your fruit trees from pest and disease problems by taking my award-winning fruit tree care course at www.orchardpeople.com. 


See related content:

PODCAST: Learning From Tree Leaves & Cherry Root Stock
PODCAST: Fireblight & Persimmon Passion 
BLOG: Fertilizer Focus: Autumn Leaves as Fruit Tree Fertilizer


Susan Poizner

Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education Online

Susan Poizner is an urban orchardist and the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards. She is the creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training program at www.orchardpeople.com and the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast.  She is also an ISA Certified Arborist..

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