Sixteen nutrients are essential for plant growth and reproduction. They are carbonhydrogenoxygennitrogenphosphoruspotassium, sulfurcalciummagnesium, ironboronmanganesecopperzincmolybdenum, and chlorine. Nearly all plant nutrients are taken up in ionic forms from the soil solution as cations or as anions. Plants release bicarbonate and hydroxyl (OH) anions or hydrogen cations from their roots in an effort to cause nutrient ions to be freed from sequestration on colloids and so forced into the soil solution where they can be picked up. Nitrogen is available in soil organic material but is unusable by plants until it is made available by that material’s decomposition by micro-organisms into cation or anion forms.


Plant nutrients, their chemical symbols, and the ionic forms common in soils and available for plant uptake
Element Symbol Ion or molecule
Carbon C CO2 (mostly through leaves)
Hydrogen H H+, HOH (water)
Oxygen O O2-, OH , CO32-, SO42-, CO2
Phosphorus P H2PO4 , HPO42- (phosphates)
Potassium K K+
Nitrogen N NH4+, NO3  (ammonium, nitrate)
Sulfur S SO42-
Calcium Ca Ca2+
Iron Fe Fe2+, Fe3+ (ferrous, ferric)
Magnesium Mg Mg2+
Boron B H3BO3, H2BO3 , B(OH)4 
Manganese Mn Mn2+
Copper Cu Cu2+
Zinc Zn Zn2+
Molybdenum Mo MoO42- (molybdate)
Chlorine Cl Cl  (chloride)

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