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I've had a chili bush I grew from seed for about a year now, and it's finally growing into something resembling an actual bush (rather than just a seedling) and it was going great until the last few weeks.

The new leaves are starting to kind of crinkle, and the most recent new shoots look as though they're dying entirely.

In spite of this it's bravely trying to grow a pepper on it!

But yeah - couldn't see any pests (other than the stupid things that ate the leaves further down the plant a month or so ago which are no longer affecting it) so am I looking at bacteria, fungus, virus, or deficiency here? Or something else?!

Location: Brisbane, Australia. It's late Summer here. Soil is clay, although clay breaker has been used occasionally on it, and the grass nearby has been fertilised recently.

Here's some pics in case it helps:

Malformed and dying new shoots Whole chili bush in case it helps

EDIT: Accepting diagnosis answers is tougher than I envisaged!

So, since originally posting this, I refertilized (herb/veggie fertilizer) which seemed to only very slightly help. Then, we had a cyclone, which dumped 150+mm of rain onto the soil, which also helped a bit, then I cleared the grass in a 50cm diameter circle away from the base, added weed control sheeting, topped with a little new soil, and fertilized with some stuff that had higher calcium concentrations in it than most fertilizer. Result is:

New shoots after calcium, water, and grass removal

Doesn't look completely better, but seems a lot less unhappy. So it's really hard to tell which of the three things it was that made the most difference, and I won't really know unless the plant starts to get worse again. As it is, it seems like the new shoots are much less curled (but not completely flat) so... yeah. Here's a pic of the whole bush showing the base etc:

Whole bush with base cleared

EDIT: Latest pics after drenching in eco oil and pyrethrum a week or so ago.

As of last week, this is what the worst affected parts of the plant were starting to look like:

Worst affected parts example

I finally tried absolutely drenching the plant in eco oil and pyrethrum (both sides of all the leaves, all trunk/stem surfaces... to the point it was dripping liberally off onto the ground underneath it.) A week or so later, it started to look like it was throwing out new leaves and these weren't affected, so I trimmed off the older damaged foliage etc, and this is now the result:

Treated and trimmed plant, much happier

It... certainly is very suggestive that it might have been a pest that was not easily seen... will wait to make sure it's still on the right track, but all things going well I'd say this will finally get a resolution in a few weeks or so... capsid guy is looking good so far :)

EDIT: update after a year of trying to nail this persistent sucker.

So my latest update to this is that none of the above appears to have made a lasting difference. After a lot of reading up and experimenting over the year I'm almost certain now that this is a virus, and I suspect it is spread by midges or similar. Spraying with white oil and pyrethrum not just on the chili bush but also on surrounding grass, plants, vegetation, and weed reservoirs appears to dramatically slow the spread of the disease from reaching new plants, but you need to keep applying the spray every two to four weeks or it wears off and the bugs come back, and then a few weeks later so does the curl.

If you give it fertilizer and make it generally happy with water and light and warmth etc it seems to be able to outgrow small infections reasonably well, but once it starts to get too infected you have to basically kill it and burn the bush to prevent spreads. The bush in the images above is now sadly cut off to the ground and burnt, though the stump has started to sprout some leaves so we'll see if the below-ground portion is okay or not.

The Bhut Jolokia and Butch T chili plants I also grow are also possibly to be affected by the virus, but not as strongly.

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I see crinkling of fresh leaf shoots like this when I have aphids, but I don't think I see any on your closeup photo. Have another look just incase (also look under leaves, as well as around the fresh buds. Extrapolating, I would suggest you are thinking along the right lines with an infection. You can rule out Tobacco Mosaic Virus (a common pepper/tomato problem) and the various fungal wilts. –  winwaed Jan 16 '13 at 13:48
    
Thanks, i'll take a real close up examination this afternoon if I can and report back. –  Jon Kloske Jan 17 '13 at 0:24
    
Yeah, took a good look over - no aphids anywhere, and only possible (not definite) sign of thrips on a single leaf. Friend at work wondered if it was nematodes... –  Jon Kloske Jan 18 '13 at 0:51

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Capsid bug damage looks like this - as the distorted leaves grow, they should look tatty and have holes. Whether its thrips or capsid, it's difficult to see the bugs themselves, you usually only know there's a problem with them because of the distorted and puckered appearance of the affected plant.

Some sort of pesticide spray seems to be necessary - check what's available in your area which is suitable for food plants. This usually means a non systemic treatment, and it will need to be applied frequently, but check the instructions.

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I tried both eco oil and pyrethrum initially and it didn't seem to make a lot of difference. But then the other day as a last ditch "I'll try this and if it doesn't work I'll pull the bush" effort I finally decided to absolutely drench both sides of all the leaves and stems of the bush in the same eco oil and pyrethrum to the point it was dripping off onto the ground near it. It's been a week or two now, and there may be signs of improvement. –  Jon Kloske May 15 '13 at 6:28
    
I'll keep you posted, as I'm still actively working on this bush and in spite of looking unhappy it's not been dying and has managed to produce some of the hottest chilis from my garden so far (and I've got a whole barrel full of chili saplings now that were grown from one nuclear chili from the plant and they're all super healthy)... –  Jon Kloske May 15 '13 at 6:28
    
(aside: even with a magnifying glass I've still not been able to identify any pests, though the response to massive pesticide doses is definitely suggestive of there being ~something~ related...) –  Jon Kloske May 15 '13 at 6:30
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which might mean it actually is capsid infestation - I have a problem with it here, but have never once managed to actually see the bug itself, despite close inspection. –  Bamboo May 15 '13 at 9:46
    
So a friend suggested it might be midges or something like them since I have lily pilly hedges on the other side of my house. He suggested I spray pyrethrum all over the lily pillys and the chili bushes and see what happens. Turns out this helped a lot. Still have the problem but no where near as severe and I get a lot of harvested peppers from them (most of which are not misshapen). Still not 100% sure what the full answer is here, but I think yours is probably the closest to correct so I'm accepting it as the answer so I can move on :D –  Jon Kloske Dec 3 at 23:46

If it's growing that slowly, there's no evidence of bugs or other infestations or infections, take a look at potential nutrient deficiencies in your soil.

Any nutrient deficiencies could be due to an actual lack of the nutrient, or from a lack of the conditions required for the plant to access the nutrient (if the pH is too low, for example). My acidic clay soil in Adelaide tends to grow plants that are chronically low in calcium, so I remedy that (long-term, year by year) by applying agricultural lime (calcium carbonate) to raise the pH and gypsum (as well as manure and compost) to help break up the clay and make it less difficult to dig next year.

My calcium-deficient plants do look somewhat like your chili bush there, and it will need extra calcium at fruiting time, so... Test the pH. Then if your pH is fine, send a sample of the soil off to be tested. Fixing either pH or nutrient deficiencies is a long-term project, but if that's your problem, there are things you can do in the short term to assist this plant.

Also, the grass you've got growing around the base of the plant will hog whatever nutrients it can. If you can, try to pull some of it out and mulch (leaving a small clear area around the actual plant stems in case of excessive damp) with something suitable for your current weather.

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Funny you should mention that - one of the guys at work suggested calcium deficiency. I just threw some broad fertiliser on it and it's looking healthier (this in spite of it being fertlised only in the last month or so). I might go looking for calcium specific stuff and let you know... –  Jon Kloske Feb 1 '13 at 2:11
    
So.. some improvement! Though not completely better, and hard to tell what made the biggest difference, or what it points to as the underlying cause :( See edits above for more info... –  Jon Kloske Feb 7 '13 at 4:45
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Every little bit helps :-) My experience is that one, isolated cause of a problem is rare, since a minor issue in one direction will make a plant more vulnerable to issues in another direction. I hope your chilli keeps improving over time and that it grows for you for years to come :-) –  Freya Mar 2 '13 at 6:17

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