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Diagnosing Plant Problems

  1. Insects – may include chewing or boring into leaves and stems, or plant parts missing altogether. Leaves may be curled, skeletonized (only the leaf veins remain while the tissue between the veins is missing) or have dead spots from insect feeding. Insects may also spread bacterial, fungal, or viral diseases from plant to plant.
  2. Pathogens (diseases) – includes viruses, bacteria and fungi. Leaves may have circular or irregular patterns of dead or discolored tissue or be completely covered in spores from fungi.
  3. Non-infectious (physiological) – includes nutrient deficiencies and toxicities, environmental stresses, or damage caused by chemicals, animals, weather or equipment
Five Steps to Complete When Diagnosing Plant Problems
  1. Identify the plants species and cultivar if applicable – Determine if growth is normal? Did the plant grow abnormally this year, or did it grow at all? What is the leaf shape and size compared to ideal?
  2. Look for patterns – Are other plants in the area affected too? Are the symptoms uniform or random? Is more than one species affected?
  3. Determine what part(s) of the plant are affected – Are the roots, stem, leaves or branches affected? How has the damage progressed over time?
  4. Look for visible symptoms (abnormal appearances or characteristics of plants) and signs (indirect or direct evidence of a pathogen or insect) – chlorotic (yellowing of plant foliage), necrotic (browning and death of plant foliage), contorted growth, damaged or missing parts. What are the leaf patterns and color? Are any signs of the insect or disease (visible insect body parts or fungus spores) present?
  5. What are the environmental and cultural situations present? Ask questions about management practices (watering and fertilizing), history of the area, weather, soil, and handling of the plant. Find out the current history of the area where the plants are growing. What fertilizers or pesticides have been used? What is the irrigation system and how much/how little water has been applied and when?

Taken from: Perennial Ornamental Plants. H.S. Fenwick, Extension Plant Pathologist. University of Idaho College of Agriculture. Current information Series 146, 1977.

Plant Problem (Symptoms) Pathogen Insect Physiological Notes
Plant stunted, weak growth, leaves off color or limbs dying Powdery mildew (white powdery fungus on leaves), rusts (red, black or orange spots on leaves), leaf spot (black spots on leaves borer damage to stem or leaves, look for holes in stems or leaves Poor soil drainage, drought damage, excess soil drainage, planting too deeply, improper soil pH, cold damage, lawn mower damage, sunscald, stem breakage, animal damage Consider working organic matter into soil before planting shrubs or trees to help improve soil aeration and water-holding capacity. Lack of water is the primary cause of death to recently transplanted shrubs and trees
Plants dying suddenly Root rots (fungus) Insect larva attacking roots Over fertilizing, severe drought damage, poor soil preparation When root rot damage is moderate, symptoms may be similar to those of drought damage
Yellowing (chlorosis) Viruses may cause a mottled appearance on the leaves Insect damage to stem or stippling of leaves Nutritional deficiency (N, Zn or Fe), poorly drained soil, over fertilization, mechanical damage to stem N deficiencies occur on lower leaves first and move up the plant. Fe deficiencies result in interveinal chlorosis of the upper leaves first.
Browning of margin or edges of leaves Root rot (fungus)
Frost or cold damage, drought damage, transplanting shock, poor soil drainage, excessive fertilization, mechanical damage Frost damage usually occurs in early spring as buds leaf out. Damage may not be visible for a month or more.
Plant fails to flower Bud blight and other fungal diseases of the flowers Aphids, thrips, grasshoppers, and other chewing or sucking insects Plant is too young or excessive vegetative growth over shading High N levels in soils and ideal growing conditions may delay flowering of some plants.
Plant fails to produce berries Fungal diseases at flowering
Cold or frost during flowering, plant is a male or a male plant is missing with only female plants present, improper pruning Using hedge shears to prune shrubs usually results in the removal of most of the tip growth and future flower buds. Berry-producing plants are best pruned by removal of individual limbs inside the plant.
Loss of berries before maturity Fungus disease on berries insect larva Drought damage In mild to moderate attacks by floral diseases, the berries may be discolored or deformed.

University of Idaho


Encouraging Beneficial Insects in Your Garden
2001 PNW 550 Price: $1.00 (available in hardcopy only)

Honeysuckle Witches’ Broom Aphid
1992 CIS 956 Price: $0.75 (available in hardcopy only)

Locust Borer, The
1988 CIS 829 Price: $0.25 (available in hardcopy only)


Bacterial Wetwood and Slime Flux of Trees
1990 CIS 876 Price: $0.25 (available in hardcopy only)

Cytospora Canker Disease in Idaho Orchards
1984 CIS 726 Price: $0.25 (available in hardcopy only)

Diplodia Tip Blight on Ponderosa Pine
1992 CIS 946 Price: $0.50 (available in hardcopy only)

Phytophthora Collar-Rot of Orchard Trees
1985 CIS 752 Price: $0.50 (available in hardcopy only)

Management of White Pine Weevil in Spruce


Controlling Iron Deficiency in Plants in Idaho

Controlling Sunscald on Trees and Shrubs
1990 CIS 869 Price: $0.25 (available in hardcopy only)

Nutrient Disorders in Tree Fruits


Why Home Fruit Trees Die
1986 CIS 776 Price: $0.25 (available in hardcopy only)

University of Illinois

Cytospora Canker of Spruce
Needle Cast of Spruce
Spruce Spider Mite
Sphaeropsis (Diplodia) Blight

Pine Wilt
Pine Diseases Chart
Phomopsis Blight of Juniper

Cedar Rust Diseases
Phomopsis Tip Blight
Kabatina Tip Blight
Cercospora Blight
Pestalotiopsis Blight
European Pine Shoot Moth & Nantucket Pine Tip Moth
Zimmerman Pine Moth
Yellow Belly Sapsucker
Pine Bark Adelgids
Pine Needle Scale
Pine Tortoise Scale
Pales Weevil, Root Collar Weevil, Root Collar Weevil
Pitch Mass Borer
Gypsy Moth
Spruce Mite
Spruce Gall Adelgids
Spruce Needle Miners
Spruce Bud Scale
Apple Scab
Black Knot
Cedar Apple Rust
Cedar Hawthorn Rust
Cedar Quince Rust
Crown Gall
Gray Mold
Oak Wilt
Powdery Mildew
Verticillium Wilt

Ohio State University

Anthracnose Leaf Blight of Shade Trees
Cedar Rust Diseases of Ornamental Plants
Control of Phytophthora and Other Major Diseases of Ericaceous Plants
Cytospora Canker of Spruce
Diseases of Ground Cover Plants
Disorders of Yew (Taxus) in Ohio
Girdling Roots — A Problem of Shade Trees
Leaf Diseases on Ornamental Trees and Shrubs
Oak Wilt
Powdery Mildews on Ornamental Plants
Rhizosphaera Needlecast on Spruce
Root Problems on Plants in the Garden and Landscape
Sooty Molds on Trees and Shrubs
Verticillium Wilt of Landscape Trees and Shrubs
Yellowing, Dieback and Death of Narrow-Leafed Evergreens

University of Vermont
Pest Management
University of Massachusetts

Helping Trees Recover from Stress

University of Minnesota

Garden: Trees & Shrubs – Insects/Diseases

Ohio State University

University of Idaho Extension

Physical Address:
E. J. Iddings Agricultural Science Laboratory, Room 52
606 S Rayburn St.
Moscow, ID

Mailing Address:
University of Idaho Extension
875 Perimeter Drive MS 2338
Moscow, ID 83844-2338

Phone: 208-885-5883

Fax: 208-885-6654


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Barbara Petty