We’re all familiar with the NPK of fertilizer fame, but what about vanadium?
When it comes to plant nutrition, most of us are familiar with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are the entrees of a plant’s diet and they are called primary macronutrients. These macronutrients are used for leaf, root, and fruit growth, respectively. [Of course, that’s a massive oversimplification, but it’ll do for now.]
Secondary macronutrients are the side dishes. They include calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Continuing with our menu motif, I guess we could say the remaining micronutrients are the herbs and spices of a plant’s meal. We used to call these flavorings trace elements and they include boron, chlorine, cobalt, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, silicon, sodium, zinc, and vanadium.
What is vanadium?
Vanadium is a biochemically active metal and it is the 20th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. It is estimated that 100,000 metric tons of vanadium are released into the atmosphere each year by burning fossil fuels, so there’s no shortage. We used to think that vanadium (V) was toxic to plants. Now we know it’s not that simple.
Vanadium is a tough nut to crack. Even though there’s plenty of it in most soils, only 1% of what’s there ends up being soluble in water, so it isn’t always easy for plants to absorb it. Also, vanadium can accumulate in plant tissues to the point that it becomes toxic. To makes things even more confusing, vanadium is believed to mimic phosphorus, tricking plants into absorbing vanadium when what they need is phosphorus. But plants do need vanadium.
How do plants use vanadium?
Vanadium is used by some plants as a substitute for molybdenum. Molybdenum helps plants use nitrogen by working with certain enzymes. But recent research has shown that there’s a lot more to vanadium than that.
Vanadium plays a role in the movement and absorption of other nutrients, activating certain enzymes, and allowing for (and blocking) the absorption of several different elements. Vanadium has been found to stimulate corn, pepper, rice, tomato, and other plants’ growth and flowering. Lab studies have shown that vanadium is responsible for increased levels of amino acids, chlorophyll, and sugar, as well as N, P, K, Ca, Mg, Cu, Mn, and B. Adding vanadium made the plants being studied grow more, produce more flower buds, and sped up the flowering process. It also helped counteract the negative effects of too much copper and other metals.
Other studies have shown that vanadium helps convert atmospheric nitrogen (which most plants cannot use) into ammonia (which plants can use as a nitrogen source). It does this by waking up a specific enzyme, called nitrogenase.
Before you start adding vanadium to your soil or fertilizer mix, you need to know that this is one of those too-much-of-a-good-thing-is-a-bad-thing situations. Vanadium toxicity can harm your plants by causing a build-up of potassium, magnesium, and manganese in plant leaves, causing a domino effect of malnutrition.
Since most soils already have plenty of vanadium, regular irrigation and periodic soil tests are your best bet. Soil tests don’t (yet) include vanadium in their results, but they will help you see if any other imbalances are present.
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