When you notice tomato leaves curling, it’s not just frustrating to see the plant lose some vigor, but it’s more worrisome knowing the plant is losing energy.
The leaves on tomato plants are like solar panels, harvesting the energy the plant needs to thrive.
The less energy tomato plants get from their leaves curling either upward, downward, or cupping inward is a worry.
Trouble is, there are numerous causes but only a couple are a sinister problem.
Sometimes, it’s just a coping mechanism.
To find out if you really need to be worried, keep reading to discover the causes, solutions where possible, or whether your tomato plant’s even fit for the compost pile.
Tomato Leaves Curling
Common causes of tomato leaf curling are micronutrient deficiencies (molybdenum and boron), Curly Top Virus, Tomato Mosaic Virus (ToMV), or insects such as broad mites, and the tomato pinworm. Leaf discoloration and the direction of curling (upward curl or downward curling) help identify the cause.
Symptoms and the Reasons for Tomato Leaves Curling
Upward Leaf Curl
This is the most common version of tomato leaf curl you’ll encounter. This happens particularly during summer and spring as the temperatures rise.
You’re more likely to notice upward leaf curl when it’s too hot and too humid for the plant.
To confirm that this is what’s happening, look at new growth.
When it’s caused by dry, hot weather, it’s the mature leaves that curl. New growth will be smaller so they won’t need to curl to conserve energy.
Mature leaves are bigger and those are the ones to curl because of their size.
What you’re seeing is the plant protecting itself from drought, even if it has enough water in the soil.
You’re actually witnessing a battle of respiration versus transpiration, which is just a part of how plants grow.
- Respiration is when the plant transforms the carbon dioxide it absorbs into oxygen during photosynthesis.
- Transpiration is the water movement inside the plant, after which, excess water escapes through the stomates on the underside of the tomato leaves.
When it’s too hot for the tomato plant (in the high 90 degrees Fahrenheit), the upward leaf curl is a survival technique because it reduces the surface area, lessening the amount of water that can be lost to transpiration.
When transpiration is happening faster than respiration is, leaf curl reduces the surface area, helping the plant store water until it can convert it to energy.
It doesn’t mean though that the plant needs more hydration. When temperatures are high, it’s just the plants’ way to make better use of the moisture it has access to.
That being said, still check the soil moisture level because too high a heat will cause the soil to dry faster. Tomatoes like the soil to be moist but not wet.
Downward Leaf Curl
Downward leaf curl is a problem to address ASAP. Take this as a sign of the plant telling you that it can’t get a drink.
The confusing part of this type of curling is that it tends to happen after a heavy watering, such as after deep watering the soil or when there’s been a heavy downpour.
Traditional wisdom tells you that the plant can’t be thirsty, but the reality is that if the soil is waterlogged, the roots can start to rot and when that happens, the plant will defensively try to prevent the rot from spreading.
The noticeable signs of root rot above the soil are leaves drooping and curling downward.
Catch it early enough, you’ll only see leaves wilting with a downward curl around the edges. When the rot worsens, the plant struggles to take up not just water, but also nutrients.
The lack of nutrient uptake – in particular, nitrogen – causes yellowing leaves.
The result of a nutrient deficiency with overwatered tomato plants is downward leaf curl with yellowing leaves.
The yellowing is the nitrogen deficiency and the leaf curling downwards is the lack of water uptake.
Before you reach for the fertilizer, know that the tomato plant is tricky with fertilizers. Just because its leaves are yellowing, doesn’t mean it needs a nitrogen fix.
Often is the case, it’s not a nitrogen top-up it needs, but rather a trace amount of molybdenum, which is a micronutrient that helps plants convert nitrates in the soil into nitrogen that can be used.
Keep reading below and you’ll learn how to read your tomato plant like a book, picking up on its subtle clues…
Different plants have different needs, which is why the best fertilizer for tomatoes vary by the variety you’re growing.
The one thing they all share is the need for similar macronutrients. These are NPK, magnesium, and calcium.
At the micronutrient level, is where some fertilizers can let you down.
Two common macronutrients that present problems for tomato plants are molybdenum (Mo) and Boron (B), both macronutrients that are essential for healthy tomato plant growth.
Here’s how tomato plants react when starved of macronutrients.
Molybdenum deficiency causes the strongest of inward curling and it’s this deficiency you ought to be careful with because it shows similar symptoms to a nitrogen deficiency.
The difference between the two is that nitrogen can remain in the soil but it’s only when molybdenum is present that nitrates can be converted into a soluble form that the plant can use to take up nitrogen.
It only needs a minuscule amount of this to form nitrates.
If it’s only this that’s deficient, adding in a nitrogen-rich fertilizer can do more harm than good.
Molybdenum deficiencies are more prevalent in acidic soils. The nitrogen can be there, but without molybdenum, the tomato plant can’t use it.
Only 0.1 to 1.0 PPM (parts per million) is needed.
The majority of soils have molybdenum or at least the molybdate particles that plants can use to make it. The more acidic the soil, the less molybdenum is available.
Most fertilizers for fruiting plants contain this, but when it lacks, such as when the soil is too acidic for it to take, a foliar spray solution is the practical way to increase absorption.
In farming applications, this would be treated by liming the soil.
However, a spray application will be more cost-effective and yield the same results.
These formulations stop the leaves from yellowing and curling without overdosing the plant with nitrogen.
If you mistake a molybdenum deficiency with a nitrogen deficiency, what’s likely to happen is you’ll get a burst of deep green leaf growth at the expense of fruit production.
With more leaves soaking up water, there’s a higher likelihood of stressing the plant, resulting in the older leaves curling due to environmental stress.
Boron is another macronutrient, but tomatoes do not need a lot of it. Most fertilizers have sufficient amounts.
When the soil is deficient in boron, symptoms on the tomato plant include stems growing in shorter and thicker, uneven ripening, cracks on the tomato skins, leaves yellowing, and curling inward.
Boric Acid has up to 17.5% of the boron compound. If applying this, go easy with it because tomatoes do not need much.
Phosphorous deficiency causes backward curling (leaf roll), the opposite of upward curling.
A downward curl doesn’t roll all the way around. When it does, that’s referred to as a backward roll, indicative of a phosphorous deficiency.
Magnesium deficiency will eventually lead to leaf curl, but you’re going to see the symptoms earlier, which is when the edges of leaves turn yellow.
If it isn’t corrected, leaves will curl.
Potassium deficiency causes the tips on the leaves to brown and curl forward.
A calcium deficiency causes new leaves to grow in pale green, turning yellow and curling inward.
If left uncorrected, this leads to blossom end rot, a common goji berry plant problem, which is (unsurprisingly) part of the same Nightshade family that tomato plants belong to.
All tomato fertilizers will have sufficient micronutrients. The two macronutrients of concern with tomatoes are molybdenum and boron, both of which can be topped up with a foliar spray, rather than treating the soil.
Viruses that Cause Leaf Curl in Tomatoes
Curly Top Virus
The Curly Top Virus is a systemic virus infecting only the host plant. It doesn’t spread to neighboring plants.
The virus is introduced by a beet leafhopper (Circulifer tenellus) bite. If your tomato plant gets it, it’s just bad luck because not every leafhopper carries the virus.
It’s prevalent in adult leafhoppers that pick it up when feeding on other plants.
Once they’re infected, they carry it for the rest of their life. It only takes one leafhopper with the virus to sample your tomato plant to infect it.
The signs of Curly Top Virus (as the name implies) are the leaves at the top of your tomato plant curling.
The direction will be an upward curl, sort of like cupping inward toward the center.
The “Top” part in the name is important because the upward curl this causes is similar to the damage inflicted by the tomato pinworm.
The difference is that the Curly Top Virus only causes leaf curl on the top leaves. Tomato pinworms will cause an upward curl on every leaf they feed on from the base of the plant up.
Unlike with leaves curling upwards that’s caused by heat stress, Curly Top Virus causes leaf discoloration, too, and new growth becomes leggy.
If you suspect this, particularly if your area has a lot of leafhoppers, look at the underside of the leaves for discoloration.
Purple veins on the underside of leaves are confirmation of Curly Top Virus.
Other signs include stunted growth, particularly any upward growth.
On indeterminate tomato plants (the ones that don’t stop growing upwards), you’ll notice more suckers branching out from side shoots causing the plant to grow bushier with very little fruit production.
Side shoots are the plant trying to outgrow the virus, which it may well do. That’s rare though.
Most likely, the plant is going to die.
Thus, it’s always a good idea to have backup plants, especially with tomato plants because it only takes one bite from a nuisance leafhopper to kill your harvest off.
Preventative measures are the only safeguard to protect your plants from leafhopper damage.
Take solace in the fact they prefer feeding on leaves in direct sunlight. Knowing that fact, you can grow your tomato plants in a shady location, or put a canopy over them.
Also, know that any tomatoes already on the vine will be healthy, as will the seeds be.
You can use the seeds of ripened tomatoes to grow new plants. It’s the exact same process used to grow goji berry plants from seed.
The Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl Virus
Similar to how the Curly Top Virus is transmitted by the beet leafhopper, it’s the whitefly that’s the carrier of the Tomato Leaf Curl Virus.
Once a whitefly has the virus, it’s contagious for a few weeks. During that window, they can infect a number of plants.
Whilst this is one of the rarer tomato viruses, it is important to know the symptoms because if you get a whitefly infestation, they can spread the disease to other plants.
The symptoms to look for are yellowing leaves curling downward but also drooping too, shriveling up, and stunted growth.
Similar to Curly Top Virus, you’ll also notice purple veins on the leaves.
The only way you can protect your tomato plants from this disease is to protect against whiteflies.
The Mosaic Virus affects hundreds of crops, mostly fruiting types of plants. Whichever strain of this virus afflicts the tomato plant, they still cause the same symptoms.
Streaky discoloration, yellow spots on tomato plant leaves, and a mosaic pattern.
If there’s even a hint of a virus infection, don’t compost your plant. Most viruses can overwinter in the soil, infecting new plants the compost is used on.
Insects that Cause Tomato Leaves to Curl
The broad mite is a sap-sucking insect that feeds from the edges of the leaves.
These are even smaller than the menacing spider mite measuring only 0.2 mm and if that’s not enough, they’re translucent so even if they were bigger, you’d still struggle to see them.
What you will certainly see is the damage they inflict on your tomato plants.
Broad mites feed on young leaves first, avoid light, and they feed on the underside of leaves.
The damage results in the leaf margins turning brown and curling downward.
The tomato pinworm is a tiny caterpillar that comes from a species of micromoth, only a few millimeters in size.
They feed only on Solanaceous plants, which are all part of the nightshade family including eggplants and potatoes.
Much of the damage they do is similar to that of the eggplant leaf miner. Only on tomatoes, it’s worse.
At the early stage of infestation (which you’re unlikely to notice), the moths lay their eggs close to the stem near the base of the plant.
When the eggs hatch, tiny caterpillars emerge and start burrowing to feed on the leaves.
Signs of damage by the tomato pinworm are brown blotches and streaks along the leaf edges.
At first, it causes the leaves to fold inwards creating a cocoon, sort of like a shelter.
As the larvae mature, they begin burrowing their way through the leaves, into the stem, eventually reaching the fruit where they bore into the tomato, then feed on the inside out.
These will ruin crops.
Early signs of tomato pinworm are leaf-fold on new leaves.
Repeat applications of neem oil can be used to get rid of a tomato pinworm infestation.
Frequently Asked Questions Related to Tomato Leaves Curling
What’s the best way to prevent leaf curl on tomato plants?
High temperatures and high humidity are often the underlying cause of tomato leaves curling, whether that be environmental stress or insects. In areas where the afternoon sun reaches scorching temperatures, you could try growing taller plants to shade your tomatoes or use a shade cloth with 30% to 50% sunlight reduction to reduce the radiant heat under the canopy. This helps protect from heat stress, and from insect damage.
Will curled leaves flatten out?
Curled leaves on tomato plants will only recover from environmental stress related to heat, water, or humidity. If it’s caused by a virus or insect damage, the leaves should be removed, the plant treated with an appropriate insecticide, or miticide and the growing conditions corrected such as soil amendments, or placing the plant in a more suitable location.
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Daniel has been a plant enthusiast for over 20 years. He owns hundreds of houseplants and prepares for the chili growing seasons yearly with great anticipation. His favorite plants are plant species in the Araceae family, such as Monstera, Philodendron, and Anthurium. He also loves gardening and is growing hot peppers, tomatoes, and many more vegetables.