Biology » Soil and Plant Nutrition » Nutritional Requirements of Plants

Essential Nutrients

Essential Nutrients

Plants require only light, water and about 20 elements to support all their biochemical needs: these 20 elements are called essential nutrients (see the table below). For an element to be regarded as essential, three criteria are required: 1) a plant cannot complete its life cycle without the element; 2) no other element can perform the function of the element; and 3) the element is directly involved in plant nutrition.

Essential Elements for Plant Growth
Carbon (C)Iron (Fe)
Hydrogen (H)Manganese (Mn)
Oxygen (O)Boron (B)
Nitrogen (N)Molybdenum (Mo)
Phosphorus (P)Copper (Cu)
Potassium (K)Zinc (Zn)
Calcium (Ca)Chlorine (Cl)
Magnesium (Mg)Nickel (Ni)
Sulfur (S)Cobalt (Co)
 Sodium (Na)
 Silicon (Si)

Macronutrients and Micronutrients

The essential elements can be divided into two groups: macronutrients and micronutrients. Nutrients that plants require in larger amounts are called macronutrients. About half of the essential elements are considered macronutrients: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulfur. The first of these macronutrients, carbon (C), is required to form carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, and many other compounds; it is therefore present in all macromolecules. On average, the dry weight (excluding water) of a cell is 50 percent carbon. As shown in the figure below, carbon is a key part of plant biomolecules.

Three cellulose fibers and the chemical structure of cellulose is shown. Cellulose consists of unbranched chains of glucose subunits that form long, straight fibers.

Cellulose, the main structural component of the plant cell wall, makes up over thirty percent of plant matter. It is the most abundant organic compound on earth.

The next most abundant element in plant cells is nitrogen (N); it is part of proteins and nucleic acids. Nitrogen is also used in the synthesis of some vitamins. Hydrogen and oxygen are macronutrients that are part of many organic compounds, and also form water. Oxygen is necessary for cellular respiration; plants use oxygen to store energy in the form of ATP. Phosphorus (P), another macromolecule, is necessary to synthesize nucleic acids and phospholipids. As part of ATP, phosphorus enables food energy to be converted into chemical energy through oxidative phosphorylation.

Likewise, light energy is converted into chemical energy during photophosphorylation in photosynthesis, and into chemical energy to be extracted during respiration. Sulfur is part of certain amino acids, such as cysteine and methionine, and is present in several coenzymes. Sulfur also plays a role in photosynthesis as part of the electron transport chain, where hydrogen gradients play a key role in the conversion of light energy into ATP. Potassium (K) is important because of its role in regulating stomatal opening and closing. As the openings for gas exchange, stomata help maintain a healthy water balance; a potassium ion pump supports this process.

Magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca) are also important macronutrients. The role of calcium is twofold: to regulate nutrient transport, and to support many enzyme functions. Magnesium is important to the photosynthetic process. These minerals, along with the micronutrients, which are described below, also contribute to the plant’s ionic balance.

In addition to macronutrients, organisms require various elements in small amounts. These micronutrients, or trace elements, are present in very small quantities. They include boron (B), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), iron (Fe), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), silicon (Si), and sodium (Na).

Deficiencies in any of these nutrients—particularly the macronutrients—can adversely affect plant growth (see the figure below). Depending on the specific nutrient, a lack can cause stunted growth, slow growth, or chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves). Extreme deficiencies may result in leaves showing signs of cell death.


Visit this website to participate in an interactive experiment on plant nutrient deficiencies. You can adjust the amounts of N, P, K, Ca, Mg, and Fe that plants receive . . . and see what happens.

Photo (a) shows a tomato plant with two green tomato fruits. The fruits have turned dark brown on the bottom. Photo (b) shows a plant with green leaves; some of the leaves have turned yellow. Photo (c) shows a five-lobed leaf that is yellow with greenish veins. Photo (d) shows green palm leaves with yellow tips.

Nutrient deficiency is evident in the symptoms these plants show. This (a) grape tomato suffers from blossom end rot caused by calcium deficiency. The yellowing in this (b) Frangula alnus results from magnesium deficiency. Inadequate magnesium also leads to (c) intervenal chlorosis, seen here in a sweetgum leaf. This (d) palm is affected by potassium deficiency. (credit c: modification of work by Jim Conrad; credit d: modification of work by Malcolm Manners)

Everyday Connection: Hydroponics

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a water-nutrient solution instead of soil. Since its advent, hydroponics has developed into a growing process that researchers often use. Scientists who are interested in studying plant nutrient deficiencies can use hydroponics to study the effects of different nutrient combinations under strictly controlled conditions. Hydroponics has also developed as a way to grow flowers, vegetables, and other crops in greenhouse environments. You might find hydroponically grown produce at your local grocery store. Today, many lettuces and tomatoes in your market have been hydroponically grown.

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