What are Essential Plant Nutrients?
Plant nutrients are chemical elements such as carbon (C), oxygen (O), hydrogen (H), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and many others (there are 16 identified so far!) that are required for a plant to complete its life cycle and have normal growth, maintenance and reproduction functions.
Nutrients are categorized as either macronutrients or micronutrients. Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur are considered macronutrients because they are found in a plant’s dry matter in quantities that range from one tenth of a percent (phosphorus and sulfur) to more than 5% (nitrogen). Other nutrients – such as zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), boron (B) and a few others – are considered micronutrients. Micronutrients are typically found in much smaller concentrations of parts per million (ppm). Both categories of nutrients serve very specific functions in a plant.
Some Macronutrient Functions
Carbon is in almost every molecule of the plant, serving as the backbone onto which most other elements attach to produce all chemical structures needed to build a plant. Nitrogen is used by the plants mostly to form proteins, RNA and DNA (the genetic material of the plant), and ATP (adenosine triphosphate; the energy molecule), while phosphorus is also present in the DNA and ATP and many other molecules. Potassium is essential in the transport of sugars and starches throughout the plant; particularly from the leaves to fruits (like a tomato or an apple) or to storage structures such as tubers and roots (potatoes and carrots); and it participates in many other processes such as maintaining water balance. Magnesium is particularly essential to produce chlorophyll, the molecule responsible for photosynthesis and the reason why plants are green, and (like most other elements) also has many other functions that keep the plant alive and well.
Some Micronutrient Functions
The story with the micronutrients is no less complex; they participate in thousands of chemical compounds and reactions. Zinc, for example, is key in controlling pollen germination—it is essential for pollination and production of fruits. Manganese, copper, iron, nickel, and selenium participate in thousands of enzymes that control functions from the production of DNA, to respiration, photosynthesis, and much more.
Essential to All Life on Earth
All plants you see and interact with exist because of the nutrients that allowed them to grow. Nutrients are not only essential to plant life; we all rely on nutrients to survive. This is why the preservation and responsible use of nutrients are so important.
Without nutrients, there would be no life.