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Leaf Me The Details, Plant Leaf Problems

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We offer our homes and yards as havens for plants. The relationship is somewhat like a marriage; we all gain from, nurture, and have feelings for each other. Yes, plants have feelings for you. Take that Ficus benjamina in your living room. Just try moving it to a spot not to its liking; it will demonstrate anger by dropping all of its leaves and laughing at you as you pick them up. There certainly are levels to plant relationships.

Level one begins at the time we bring the plant home from the nursery, beautiful and brand new. During level two of your relationship, the plant is happy, growing, and thriving in your landscape. At level three, there may be an appearance of sadness about the plant – wilty leaves, spots in or on the leaves, or stems and branches turning brown or black. The last level, level four, is the funeral procession to the large, black garbage can. We have all been there, the jubilation of discovery of a highly sought-after plant to then watching a favorite plant decline and die. In what ways do plants cry for help?

Let’s focus on leaves today. Problems on leaves are often the first signal that something is wrong with your plant. Leaves are a map to diagnosing problems and applying corrections.

A leaf that is wilted and droopy may have many different causes. If the leaves throughout the plant are normal in color and wilted, it could be insufficient water. If those same leaves are also translucent at the tips, the length of time since last watering and too little water has caused tissue damage. If you water the plant and it does not recover, you will need to observe roots and branches for further damage.

If the leaf has abnormal size or shape and some burning present on the edges, it may be diagnosed as herbicide damage. Are the leaves on your plant mottled or striped (as symptoms)? If there are striped leaves but no brown, dead tissue around the edge, your plant could have a nitrogen or magnesium deficiency. Take the same leaf, minus the striping but add discolored spots on the underside of the leaf, you now have fungus.

Holes or chewed edges are another form of leaf damage. Triangular-shaped holes are often bird damage. Caterpillars and grass hoppers choose to eat the fleshy part of the leaf including the veins. Large veins are too tough for beetles; they want just the green material between the veins. Earwigs will joyfully munch on both old and new leaves. Slime trails provide evidence of slugs and snails. Little round holes are the signs of flea beetles.

Stunted leaves rolled into a cylinder and “glued” together are thanks to leaf rollers or caterpillars. Accordion style, pleated leaves are created by lack of humidity. Puckered leaves with insects on the underside are created by aphids.

Plants live in an environment that we create for them, whether too hot, too wet, too buggy or too dark. Assessing and correcting problems will allow our relationships to remain at level two, thriving and living happily ever after.

Julie Silva is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County who believes it is always good to be prepared.