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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/411

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Potassium and sodium enter into the composition of many rocks, and as these become eroded by weather they are scattered through the soil, whence their salts are extracted by rootlets and enter into the formation of vegetable tissue.

Behind these stands iron. The green coloring matter of plants is a very complex substance known as chlorophyll, the duty of which is to take carbonic oxide from the air, utilize the carbon, and restore the oxygen. Iron enters into the composition of chlorophyll, and to it is due the brown color of dead leaves. This metal is well-nigh universal, all the reds and browns in soils and rocks being made by it, and so it is rarely lacking anywhere.

So much for the metals in soils; but, important as they are, plants can not live on them alone. Among the nonmetallic bodies phosphorus stands high among essentials, and for it we are indebted to the sea and the interior of the earth. Many living creatures extract phosphorus from the sea water—combine it chiefly with lime, and use the phosphate for making skeletons or shells, as the case may be. After the death of the possessors the bones or shells sink to the bottom, as do the Globigerina, and in time are either lifted up, as were the limestones, and form "phosphate beds" like those of Georgia and Florida, or are dredged up and ground into powder with bones of land animals.

Much of the matter forced up from the interior of the earth contains phosphorus; indeed, it is the bane of Southern iron ores; but though iron masters dread it, farmers welcome it, as the rains and frosts crumble the phosphatic rocks and add them to the mass of débris that forms our soil.

Now let us take a test tube and put into it lime, potash, soda, iron, silicon, or sand, and phosphorus, add to it a grain of corn, and watch results. Under suitable conditions of warmth and moisture the grain will sprout, but when the store of food laid up in it is exhausted our little plant will die. It is obvious that something else is needed for a soil, and analysis shows that it is nitrogen, the gas that forms nearly four fifths of our atmosphere—a gas useless, as such, to animals, but essential to plants. Nitrogen is abundant in Nature. Besides being nearly four fifths of the air, it forms twenty-two per cent of nitric acid, forty-five per cent of saltpeter or niter, eighty-two per cent of ammonia, and about twenty-five per cent of sal ammoniac. Plants can not use nitrogen in its pure form, but one or another of these forms will be found in the soil, whence it may be extracted.

Now we have the chief articles of plant food, and it is necessary to know how they are to be used. A plant usually consists of two parts, one that appears above ground, bearing branches, twigs, and