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Iron chlorosis - brief overview

This articles touches on iron chlorosis in trees, including its causes and potential cures. Everything works some of the time, nothing works all the time.

(The following appeared in the ND Forest Service’s ‘Prairie Forester’ publication in 2009.)

-Joe Zeleznik 

Life is tough on trees in North Dakota. They face bitter cold winters, spring floods and summer droughts. One thing they don’t face is nutrient deficiency … usually. Iron chlorosis is the exception. It affects trees throughout the state and it is sometimes fatal.

Autumn Blaze maple, iron chlorosis, close-up of leaf, NDSU campus

The main symptom of iron chlorosis is yellow leaves with green veins. Iron is used by the trees to make chlorophyll, the green pigment that traps sunlight for photosynthesis. There is no predicting if or when a tree will be affected by iron chlorosis; a tree can be healthy for many years, then suddenly become chlorotic. Iron chlorosis can be the first step in a decline spiral that eventually kills the tree.

Some species are more susceptible than others to reduced iron. Silver maple trees are especially vulnerable. Silver maple is one of the parents of the Freeman maples such as Autumn Blaze® or Sienna Glen®; these hybrids are slightly susceptible to iron chlorosis, but not as much as silver maple. River birch and red oak are less sensitive than silver maple, but more sensitive than most other tree species.

Most of North Dakota’s soils have enough iron in them to support healthy plant growth. But sometimes the iron is in a form that’s not available to plants. The culprit is usually high soil pH. The soil is not acidic enough to keep iron in the available form. Low soil oxygen can also cause iron to be unavailable. Trees are more susceptible to iron chlorosis if they are growing in flooded or compacted soils. Even low temperatures can reduce iron availability.

Can chlorotic trees be “fixed” or “saved”? As with most things, the answer is “it depends.” In the case of iron chlorosis, prevention is more effective than after-the-fact treatment.

Determining the cause of the low iron availability is critical to developing a treatment approach. Obviously, we can’t change the weather – low-temperature induced chlorosis can’t be prevented. However, flooding and compaction – and therefore low soil oxygen – can be mitigated by improving drainage or aerating the soil.

Autumn Blaze maple, NDSU, iron chlorosis

For chemical treatment products, there are a lot of manufacturers’ claims. What does the science say? It’s not conclusive. Everything works some of the time, but nothing works all of the time.

If the cause of the chlorosis is high soil pH, then there are two options – lower the pH or add iron in an available form. Soil pH can be lowered by adding elemental sulfur or by adding acid-forming fertilizers. Some experts recommend combining these approaches by applying iron sulfate to the soil. Treatments must be repeated every two-to-three years. Iron can also be added as a chelate. Chelated iron comes in many formulations, so ask your local garden center what formulations are on hand.

Iron can also be added directly to the tree, either as a foliar spray or as a trunk injection into the vascular system. Iron chelate sprayed onto the leaves offers a quick fix to the problem, but the effects are often short-lived. Trunk injections have shown mixed results. Sometimes, injections are effective and trees regain their health and vigor. However, if the damage is too severe, then trees will not recover.

Iron chlorosis can be found in trees throughout the state. But with proper management, it can be prevented, and sometimes, cured.

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