Nutrition in Plants

Plants, like all other living things, need food for their growth and development. Plants require 16 essential elements. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are derived from the atmosphere and soil water. The remaining 13 essential elements (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, iron, zinc, manganese, copper, boron, molybdenum, and chlorine) are supplied either from soil minerals and soil organic matter or by organic or inorganic fertilizers.

For plants to utilize these nutrients efficiently, light, heat, and water must be adequately supplied. Cultural practices and control of diseases and insects also play important roles in crop production.

Each type of plant is unique and has an optimum nutrient range as well as a minimum required level. Below this minimum level, plants start to show nutrient deficiency symptoms. Excessive nutrient uptake can also cause poor growth because of toxicity. Therefore, the proper amount of application and the placement of nutrients is important.

Plant Nutrients

The major source of plant nutrition is the fixation of atmospheric CO2 into simple sugar using the energy of the sun. CO2 enters through the stomata. O2 is a product of photosynthesis and an atmospheric component that also moves through the stomata. It is used in cellular respiration to release energy from the chemical bonds in the sugar to support growth and maintenance in the plant. However, CO2 and light energy are not sufficient for the synthesis of all the molecules a plant needs.

Plants require a number of inorganic nutrients. Some of these are macronutrients, which the plants need in relatively large amounts, and others are micronutrients, which are required in trace amounts. There are nine macronutrients: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen the three elements found in all organic compounds as well as nitrogen.


Plant growth is affected by soil composition. The soil is the highly weathered outer layer of the earth’s crust. It is composed of a mixture of ingredients, which may include sand, rocks of various sizes, clay, silt, hummus, and various other forms of mineral and organic matter; pore spaces containing water and air occur between the particles.

Most elements are combined as inorganic compounds called minerals; most rocks consist of several different minerals. The soil is also full of microorganisms that break down and recycle organic debris.

Nitrogen Nutrient Functions

  • N is biologically combined with C, H, O, and S to create amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Amino acids are used in forming protoplasm, the site for cell division and thus for plant growth and development.
  • Since all plant enzymes are made of proteins, N is needed for all of the enzymatic reactions in a plant.
  • N is a major part of the chlorophyll molecule and is, therefore, necessary for photosynthesis.
  • N is a necessary component of several vitamins.
  • N improves the quality and quantity of dry matter in leafy vegetables and protein in grain crops.

Phosphorus Nutrient Functions

  • In photosynthesis and respiration, P plays a major role in energy storage and transfer as ADP and ATP (adenosine di- and triphosphate) and DPN and TPN (di- and triphosphopyridine nucleotide).
  • P is part of the RNA and DNA structures, which are the major components of genetic information.
  • Seeds have the highest concentration of P in a mature plant, and P is required in large quantities in young cells, such as shoots and root tips, where metabolism is high and cell division is rapid.
  • P aids in root development, flower initiation, and seed and fruit development.
  • P has been shown to reduce disease incidence in some plants and has been found to improve the quality of certain crops.

Water And Mineral Absorption

Most of the water absorbed by the plant comes in through root hairs, which collectively have an enormous surface area. Root hairs are almost always turgid because their solute potential is greater than that of the surrounding soil due to mineral ions being actively pumped into the cells. Because the mineral ion concentration in the soil water is usually much lower than it is in the plant, an expenditure of energy is required for the accumulation of such ions in root cells. The plasma membranes of root hair cells contain a variety of protein transport channels, through which proton pumps transport specific ions against even large concentration gradients. Once in the roots, the ions, which are plant nutrients, are transported via the xylem throughout the plant.


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