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Source: Soil Fertility Manual (2006) by the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) and the Foundation for Agronomic Research (FAR). Symptoms of deficiency can vary across crop species, but similarities exist for how nutrient insufficiency impacts plant tissue color and appearance.
All photos are provided courtesy of the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) and its IPNI Crop Nutrient Deficiency Image Collection.
One of three primary nutrients, phosphorus (P) is essential for plant growth, and a plant must access it to complete its normal production cycle. Phosphorus is highly mobile in plants and, when deficient, may translocate from old plant tissue to young, actively growing areas. Potassium (K) is one of the essential nutrients and is taken up in significant amounts by crops.
Hidden in the heart of each chlorophyll molecule is an atom of magnesium (Mg), making the nutrient actively involved in photosynthesis.
Magnesium nutrition of plants is frequently overlooked and shortages will adversely impact plant growth. Magnesium is an essential component of chlorophyll, with each molecule containing 6.7 percent Mg.
Magnesium is mobile within the plant and easily translocates from older to younger tissues. In the field, plants deficient in S show pale-green coloring of the younger leaves, although the entire plant can be pale green and stunted in severe cases. Calcium (Ca) is found all around us, and the very existence of plants and animals depends on it.
The secondary nutrients, calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulfur (S), are as important to plant nutrition as the primary nutrients. When Ca translocates within the plant, it improves plant roots' ability to absorb other nutrients. Calcium deficiency isn't likely for most crops if producers properly lime soils to adjust pH to optimum levels for crop production. Abnormal development of growing points (in the form of terminal buds) and poor root growth are common symptoms of a Ca deficiency. Boron (B) is a micronutrient that is essential for cell wall formation and rapid growing points within the plant, such as reproductive structures.
Crops vary widely in their need for B, and the line between deficient and toxic amounts is narrower than for any other essential nutrient. Manganese is immobile in plants, so deficiency symptoms appear first on younger leaves, with yellowing between the veins. Manganese deficiencies are often associated with high-pH soils, which may result from an imbalance with other nutrients such as Ca, magnesium (Mg) and Iron (Fe). Since soil applications of most Fe sources are generally ineffective for correcting Fe deficiencies in crops, foliar sprays are the recommended method.
Copper (Cu) is necessary for carbohydrate and nitrogen metabolism, so inadequate Cu results in stunted plants. In addition to being an essential component of various enzyme systems for energy production, Zn is required in protein synthesis and growth regulation.
Molybdenum (Mo) is a trace element found in the soil and is required for the synthesis and activity of the enzyme nitrate reductase. Molybdenum deficiencies show up as general yellowing or stunting of the plant, and more specifically in the marginal scorching and cupping or rolling of leaves. Heavy P applications increase Mo uptake by plants, while heavy sulfur (S) applications decrease Mo uptake. Hydrogen (H), derived almost entirely from water, is one of the 17 essential nutrients necessary for plant growth.
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All crops must have an adequate supply of each of these 17 nutrients to produce optimum yields.
Some proteins act as structural units in plant cells, while others act as enzymes, making possible many of the biochemical reactions on which life is based.
Plants absorb P from the soil as primary and secondary orthophosphates (H2PO4- and HPO42-). ATP forms during photosynthesis, has P in its structure, and processes from the beginning of seedling growth through to the formation of grain and maturity.
Some specific growth factors associated with P include stimulated root development, increased stalk and stem strength, improved flower formation and seed production, more uniform and earlier crop maturity, increased nitrogen- fixing capacity of legumes, improvements in crop quality, and increased resistance to plant diseases. Crops usually display no obvious symptoms of P deficiency other than a general stunting of the plant during early growth, and by the time a visual deficiency is recognized, it may be too late to correct in annual crops. Potassium is vital to photosynthesis, protein synthesis and many other functions in plants. Magnesium also aids in phosphate metabolism, plant respiration and the activation of many enzyme systems.
Unlike the other secondary nutrients like calcium and magnesium (which plants take up as cations), S is absorbed primarily as the SO42- anion. Often overlooked, sulfur can be that weak link in many soil fertility and plant nutrition programs.
Nitrogen-deficiency symptoms are more severe on older leaves, however, because N is a mobile plant nutrient and moves to new growth. Deficiency in secondary nutrients, including Ca, can depress plant growth as much as primary nutrient deficiencies do. This changeover is essential for microorganisms because they turn crop residues into organic matter, release nutrients, and improve soil aggregation and water-holding capacity.
It activates a number of plant growth-regulating enzyme systems, helps convert nitrate N into forms needed for protein formation, allows cell wall formation and normal cell division to occur, and contributes to improved disease resistance. Young leaves and other new tissue develop symptoms first because Ca does not translocate within the plant. Interestingly, while higher plants require B, animals, fungi and microorganisms do not need this nutrient. B deficiencies generally stunt plant growth by reducing cell wall extension at the growing point.
Iron also composes many enzymes associated with energy transfer, nitrogen reduction and fixation, and lignin formation.
Copper also is required for lignin synthesis, which is needed for cell wall strength and wilt prevention. It was one of the first micronutrients recognized as essential for plants and the one most commonly limiting yields. Further, Zn is a team player with nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) in many plant-development processes. Only about a half-pound of Zn is needed per acre for high-yield (180 bushels per acre) corn production. Molybdenum is vital for the process of symbiotic nitrogen (N) fixation by Rhizobia bacteria in legume root modules. Hydrogen, along with carbon and oxygen, are the three primary elements plant use in the largest amounts, and they perform as the building blocks for plant growth. Plants acquire O by breaking down carbon dioxide (CO2) during photosynthesis and end up releasing the majority of it as an unnecessary byproduct, saving a small portion for future energy.
In accordance with The Law of the Minimum, if one or more nutrients are lacking in the soil, crop yields will be reduced, even though an adequate amount of other elements is available. Despite its identity as one of the most abundant elements on Earth, deficient nitrogen is probably the most common nutritional problem affecting plants worldwide.
Nitrogen is an important component of many important structural, genetic and metabolic compounds in plant cells.

The genetic makeup of the plant influences the degree of purple, and some hybrids show much greater discoloration than others. As a plant matures, P translocates into the fruiting areas of the plant, where the formation of seeds and fruit requires high energy. The process of opening and closing of plant leaf pores, called stomates, is regulated by potassium concentration in the guard cells, which surround the stomates. So, Mg is essential for phosphate metabolism, plant respiration and the activation of several enzyme systems. In acidic soils with a pH below about 5.8, excessive hydrogen and aluminum can decrease Mg availability and plant uptake. As of late, there are several reasons for the increased observance of S deficiencies and increased S needs.
This mobility of sulfate SO42- makes it difficult to calibrate soil tests and use them as predictive tools for S fertilization needs. Calcium helps enable nitrogen (N)-fixing bacteria that form nodules on the roots of leguminous plants to capture atmospheric N gas and convert it into a form that plants can use.
Further, Ca, along with Mg and potassium (K), helps neutralize organic acids that form during plant-cell metabolism. New tissue needs Ca pectate for cell wall formation, so a Ca deficiency can cause gelatinous leaf tips and growing points. Younger leaves show symptoms first, which indicates B is not readily translocated in the plant.
Iron is a component of many enzymes associated with energy transfer, nitrogen reduction and fixation, and lignin formation. Including a sticker-spreader agent in the spray helps improve its adherence to the plant foliage for increased Fe absorption by the plant. Classified as a micronutrient, only a small amount of this essential nutrient is needed for plant survival. Plants take CO2 from the air and use the C for energy, helping to build essential biological compounds such as carbohydrates and proteins.
Crop yields may be limited by the element that is in shortest supply, so it helps to understand the key nutrients that are needed to make your crop thrive.
Finally, nitrogen is a significant component of nucleic acids such as DNA, the genetic material that allows cells (and eventually whole plants) to grow and reproduce. The purplish color results from the accumulation of sugars, which favors the synthesis of anthocyanin (a purplish pigment,) which occurs in the leaves of the plant. In addition, S-free compounds have replaced many of the insecticides and fungicides formerly applied to control insects and diseases in crops.
Yet, lack of Zn can limit plant growth, just like N or K, if the soil is deficient or crop uptake is restricted.
This lack of mobility in plants suggests the need for a constant supply of available zinc for optimum growth. Since Mo becomes more available with increasing pH, liming will correct a deficiency if soil contains enough of the nutrient.
The percentage of the total amount of each nutrient taken up is higher for P late in the growing season than for either N or K. Chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants, is the substance through which photosynthesis occurs. However, seed treatment is the most common way of correcting Mo deficiency because only very small amounts of the nutrient are required.

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