Tomato Leaf Sunburn: How to Keep Your Plants Healthy

Tomato plants, known for their succulent fruits and versatility in numerous culinary applications, also require a careful balance of care and environmental conditions. A common issue gardeners face when growing these plants is tomato leaf sunburn, a condition caused by excessive sunlight that leads to visible damage on the leaves.

Understanding the causes, prevention strategies, symptoms, and potential remedies for tomato leaf sunburn is critical for anyone wishing to grow healthy and productive tomato plants.

What Causes Tomato Leaf Sunburn?

Sunburn in tomato leaves is typically caused by excessive direct exposure to sunlight, particularly in hotter, more intense midday and early afternoon sun. This can occur when the plant is suddenly moved from a shaded or indoor location to a spot in full sunlight, or when a tomato plant is newly transplanted and not yet acclimatized to the outdoor environment. Other factors such as inadequate watering, which reduces the plant’s ability to cope with heat stress, can also contribute to tomato leaf sunburn.

Just like in humans, sunburn in plants occurs when the plant is unable to effectively handle the amount of sunlight it is receiving. Sunlight, though essential for photosynthesis, can be damaging in large amounts, especially to the plant’s leaves. Sunburn happens when a plant’s natural protective mechanisms, such as the waxy cuticle on the leaves, cannot prevent damage from ultraviolet (UV) rays.

How Can I Prevent Tomato Leaf Sunburn?

Preventing tomato leaf sunburn involves careful management of your plants’ sunlight exposure and overall care. Gradually acclimate young or indoor plants to outdoor conditions by exposing them to direct sunlight for increasing periods of time over a week or two. This process, known as hardening off, helps the plants build up resistance to UV rays.

Ensuring proper watering is another key preventive measure. Moisture helps keep plant tissues cool and aids in their recovery from sun damage. Therefore, you should water your tomato plants thoroughly and regularly, particularly during dry spells or heatwaves.

Use of protective covers can also help. These could include shade cloth, garden fleece, or even a homemade cover with a light-permeable material. Such covers can diffuse the sunlight, thereby reducing its intensity on the tomato leaves and preventing sunburn.

What Are The Symptoms Of Tomato Leaf Sunburn?

Tomato leaf sunburn usually manifests as white or pale, bleached-looking spots on the leaf surface that are often brittle and dry to the touch. These spots might initially appear on the areas of the leaf that get the most sunlight, especially the topmost and outermost leaves. Over time, if the condition worsens, these spots can expand and cover more of the leaf.

As sunburn progresses, the affected areas might turn brown and necrotic, looking almost scorched. You may also observe curling or shriveling of the leaves. In severe cases, sunburn can cause the entire leaf to wilt, and can even affect the fruit, leading to sunscald, a condition where areas of the fruit become discolored and tough.

Can Tomato Leaf Sunburn Be Reversed?

Once tomato leaves are sunburned, the damage cannot be completely reversed. The burnt leaf tissue is dead and cannot recover. However, there are steps you can take to help the plant recover overall and prevent further damage.

The first thing you should do is move the plant, if possible, to a location where it will receive less intense sunlight, particularly during the hottest parts of the day. Ensure the plant is well watered, but be careful not to overwater, as this can lead to other issues like root rot.

If sunburned leaves are severely damaged, it might be beneficial to remove them to allow the plant to redirect its energy towards new growth. It’s also a good idea to keep a close eye on your plants after they have suffered sunburn, as the damaged tissue can make them more susceptible to diseases and pests.

Is Tomato Leaf Sunburn Harmful To The Plant?

Yes, tomato leaf sunburn can be harmful to the plant. When the leaf tissue is damaged by sunburn, it reduces the leaf’s ability to perform photosynthesis, which can hamper the plant’s overall growth and productivity.

In addition to limiting photosynthesis, the damaged leaves are less able to transpire, or release water vapor, effectively. This can further stress the plant, especially during hot weather. Moreover, severe sunburn can damage not just the leaves but also the fruits, leading to sunscald.

The damaged tissue from sunburn can also leave the plant vulnerable to infections, as it provides an easy entry point for pathogens. This can lead to diseases that further weaken the plant and can potentially lead to its death if not addressed.

What Are Some Natural Remedies For Tomato Leaf Sunburn?

One of the simplest and most effective natural remedies for tomato leaf sunburn is to provide shade for the affected plants. This could be done using a shade cloth, or by planting taller companion plants nearby that can provide natural shade. It’s also possible to construct a simple frame and drape a cloth or netting over it to shield the plants during the hottest parts of the day.

Watering effectively is another important natural remedy. Regular and deep watering can help the plant to cope with heat stress and recover from sunburn damage. However, it’s important to water the soil, not the leaves, as wet leaves can actually increase the likelihood of sunburn.

Applying a layer of mulch around the base of the plants can help to retain soil moisture, reducing water stress and keeping the plant’s roots cool. Mulch can also help to reduce weed competition for water and nutrients.

Are Certain Tomato Varieties More Prone To Leaf Sunburn?

Yes, certain tomato varieties are more prone to leaf sunburn than others. Varieties that are native to cooler or shadier climates, or those with lighter, thinner leaves, tend to be more susceptible to sunburn.

For example, heirloom varieties, which haven’t been bred for high resistance to sunburn like some modern hybrids, can be more prone to sunburn. Some specific tomato varieties known for their susceptibility include ‘Brandywine’, ‘Green Zebra’, and ‘Black Krim’.

Conversely, there are tomato varieties that have been bred to be more resistant to sunburn. These often have thicker, darker leaves which can handle more sun exposure. Varieties such as ‘SunGold’, ‘Solar Flare’, and ‘Heatmaster’ are known for their heat and sun resistance.

How Does Excessive Sunlight Lead To Tomato Leaf Sunburn?

Excessive sunlight leads to tomato leaf sunburn by overwhelming the plant’s natural defenses against the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) rays. Plants have a number of defense mechanisms to protect against sun damage, such as the production of pigments like anthocyanins and carotenoids, the reflection of light by a waxy cuticle on the leaf surface, and the ability to orient leaves away from intense light.

However, when exposed to intense sunlight for prolonged periods, these defenses can be overwhelmed, resulting in damage to the plant cells in the leaves. This damage is largely due to the generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) under intense light, which can harm cellular structures and disrupt vital metabolic processes, leading to leaf sunburn.

Additionally, high light intensity can lead to rapid water loss from the leaves, exacerbating heat and light stress. This is particularly problematic when soil moisture is insufficient, preventing the plant from compensating for the water loss through transpiration.

Can I Use Sunscreen On Tomato Leaves To Prevent Sunburn?

While it might seem like a logical solution, applying sunscreen designed for humans is not recommended for preventing sunburn on tomato leaves. Human sunscreens contain chemicals and oils that are not safe for plants and can clog leaf pores (stomata), preventing essential gaseous exchange and transpiration.

However, there are products known as anti-transpirants or leaf-shine sprays that can help protect plants from sun damage. These are generally safe to use on plants and can form a protective coating that helps to reflect sunlight and reduce water loss. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using such products.

Alternatively, the use of shade cloth, appropriate watering techniques, and careful acclimation to sunlight are typically more effective and natural ways to prevent sunburn in tomato plants.

Are There Any Shade Solutions For Protecting Tomato Plants From Leaf Sunburn?

Yes, there are several shade solutions that can protect tomato plants from leaf sunburn. One of the most common solutions is a shade cloth. Shade cloths come in various densities to allow different percentages of sunlight through, so you can choose one appropriate for your climate and the specific needs of your plants.

Garden netting or garden fleece can also be used as a shade solution. These materials can be draped over a frame to create a protective canopy over your tomato plants. Another method is using a patio umbrella or portable canopy, which can be particularly useful if you only have a few plants or if they are in pots.

Another solution is companion planting, where taller plants are strategically placed to provide shade for the tomato plants. Lastly, consider the location of your tomato plants. If possible, plant them in a location where they will receive some afternoon shade, such as on the east side of a building or under the partial shade of a tree.


In conclusion, tomato leaf sunburn can cause significant damage to your plants, affecting their health, growth, and productivity. However, understanding what causes this condition and the symptoms to look out for allows you to intervene early and minimize damage. Preventive measures, including gradual acclimation to sunlight, proper watering, and providing shade can help avoid this problem. And while some damage might be irreversible, effective care and management can help your tomato plants recover and thrive.

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