Signs of Iron Deficiency in Trees

August 13, 2019
August 13, 2019 Ryan McFadgen

Signs of Iron Deficiency in Trees

Sometimes, unfortunate circumstances such as disease or damage make tree removal an inevitability. But in many cases homeowners want to save their trees by watching for signs of something going wrong, and treating the problem promptly. Iron deficiency, or chlorosis, is one condition that can be reversed if you spot the signs early enough.

What causes iron deficiency? Iron deficiency is common when soils are alkaline (pH above 7), which is common in the western half of the country. Even when the soil contains plenty of iron, the alkalinity can make the nutrient insoluble and therefore unavailable for the tree’s use. When soils are compacted due to foot traffic or poor drainage, the resulting low oxygen conditions can make the problem even worse.

Which species of tree are prone to iron deficiency? Iron deficiency can strike many types of trees, but we see it most commonly in:

  • Silver maples
  • Red maples and hybrids
  • Pin oaks
  • River birch

Iron deficiency is less common, but can still occur, in:

  • Cottonwood
  • Bald cypress
  • Sweet gum
  • Eastern white pine
  • Swamp white oak

How do you spot iron deficiency? If you spot the following signs in your trees, iron deficiency would be a prime suspect:

  • Leaves turn light green or yellow in early summer
  • Leaves feature dark green veins
  • Leaves turn brown on the edges
  • Leaves fall off after turning brown (before expected in the fall)
  • Limbs begin to die

What happens to trees when they become iron deficient? In short, it kills them. Trees need chlorophyll in order to produce energy and survive. Iron deficiency disrupts this process, and can eventually kill the tree. In the meantime, a sick and malnourished tree is also prone to other types of disease and pests.

What can you do about iron deficiency in trees? Consulting a tree expert is key, to determine the exact methods that will work for your situation. In general, iron deficiency can be combated with the following strategies:

  • Watering during dry spells (but not over-watering, which is also problematic)
  • Mulching two inches deep or less, while avoiding “mulch volcanoes”
  • Amending the soil (but no, simply adding iron often won’t work, because the alkalinity is the real problem)
  • Avoiding fertilization with nitrogen or phosphate

And of course, give us a call if you suspect your tree is suffering from iron deficiency. In its weakened state, it poses a fall hazard. Even if the deficiency can be reversed, we should remove dead limbs to reduce the risk of damage to property and improve the appearance of the tree.


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