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The Natural History of Plants, Vol. 4

Excerpt from The Natural History of Plants, Vol. 4: Their Forms, Growth, Reproduction, and Distribution Under these circumstances it is a matter of indifference whether 10 percent or only traces of lime or silica can he demonstrated in the soil, and the hypothesis that plant-species which grow on limestone fail to grow on slate because they are not able to supply their need of calcium, or that the plants growing on slate cannot flourish on limestone mountains because they cannot obtain the necessary amount of silica, must be abandoned, as well as the assumption that these substances when absorbed as food serve as a stimulus to change of form. I strongly supported this latter hypothesis at the time, and thought I should be able to strengthen and confirm it by careful cultural experiments. Seeds of several species which demand lime were sown in soil containing hardly perceptible quantities of lime, and the seedlings were watered with water devoid of calcium; in another place seeds of species demanding a silica-containing substratum were placed in soil which contained much limestone, and the seedlings were watered with limewater. At first it seemed as if an alteration of form had actually taken place in some individuals. But this was a mistake, or rather, the alteration only consisted in the greater or less luxuriance of the foliage, lengthening or shortening of the stem, abundant or scanty development of flowers and the like. But no actual change of form which would be retained by their descendants could be obtained. The species of plants accustomed to lime, grown on a soil devoid of lime, presented a miserable appearance, with scanty flowers which ripened only a few seeds, whilst the silica-demanding species grown on lime-containing soil soon withered and died without flowering; at all. The change of form, indeed the actual interchange I had anticipated between the closely allied species which grow on the two rocky substrata in a state of nature, did not occur at all. If we still take the case of siliceous and calcareous plants, and regard the soil as the source of free inorganic substances which influence the plants, we are forced to assume that greater quantities of one substance will be injurious to one or other of them. The absorbent cells have the capacity of choosing between the substances at their disposal, but this capacity has a definite limit in every species. The cells can absorb as much as they require from a very weak solution of common salt, soda, gypsum, calcium bicarbonate, c., but a concentrated solution of these salts may injure and destroy their structure and function. If it is allowed to act for any length of time on the cells whose function is to absorb inorganic nutriment, the death of the whole plant will inevitably result. If the Moss which grows on blocks of granite is watered with a saturated solution of gypsum; if the soil into which our Meadow-grasses send their roots is watered with a saturated solution of common salt; or if the humus in which the plants of an upland moor grow is mixed with sodium carbonate or calcium bicarbonate, the plants invariably perish, and the same mineral substances, which in a very weak solution are needful, or at any rate harmless, become poisonous when the solutions are concentrated. About the Publisher Forgotten Books publishes hundreds of thousands of rare and classic books. Find more at
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