Do plants eat dirt?


Plant, scale, May 5, 2016

A fun exhibit inside the Huntington’s Conservatory (a good place to visit on a rare overcast day): all about an experiment conducted by seventeenth-century scientist Jan Baptista Van Helmont to answer the question of whether or not plants “eat” soil. As the sign in this photo explains, the plant subject Van Helmont chose was a willow tree, and …

Before planting [it], he weighed both the tree and the soil. He added nothing but water to the pot for five years. When he weighed it again, the plant had gained 163 lbs (74.4 kg), but the soil had lost only 2.5 ounces (57 g). The tree had clearly not “eaten” the soil to grow.

What then? Do plants eat water? No, the sign explains …

Plants use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates. Carbohydrates make up the bulk of all plants. Plants don’t “eat” at all.

So there you have it! For more on Van Helmont, see this site here; for more on the Huntington Conservatory, see this site here, and find another post in these pages featuring a Toledo scale here.

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