Plant Growth Factors

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This guide provides introductory information about how environmental factors includes light, temperature, water, humidity, and nutrition affect plant growth. The content of the article been adapted from Oregon State University's guide to Environmental Factors Affecting Plant Growth.

Environmental Factors

It is important to understand how environmental factors affect plant growth and development. With a basic understanding of these factors, you may be able to manipulate plants to meet your needs, whether for increased leaf, flower, or fruit production. By recognizing the roles of these factors, you also will be better able to diagnose plant problems caused by environmental stress.

Plant growth and geographic distribution are greatly affected by environment factors. If any environmental factor is less than ideal, it limits a plant's growth and/or distribution. Each type of plant has a unique set of characteristics and require different things (water, sunlight, soil type, etc.). Some plants like it hot and sunny, while others like it cooler or moister (or both). Either directly or indirectly, most plant problems are caused by environmental stress. In some cases, poor environmental conditions (e.g., too little water) damage a plant directly. In other cases, environmental stress weakens a plant and makes it more susceptible to disease or insect attack.


Temperature influences most plant processes, including photosynthesis, transpiration, respiration, germination, and flowering. As temperature increases (up to a point), photosynthesis, transpiration, and respiration increase. When combined with day-length, temperature also affects the change from vegetative (leafy) to reproductive (flowering) growth. Depending on the situation and the specific plant, the effect of temperature can either speed up or slow down this transition.


Germination is the process by which an organism grows from a seed or spore. The term is applied to the sprouting of a seedling from a seed of an angiosperm or gymnosperm, the growth of a sporeling from a spore, such as the spores of fungi, ferns, bacteria, and the growth of the pollen tube from the pollen grain of a seed plant.

The temperature required for germination varies by species. Generally, cool-season crops (e.g., spinach, radish, and lettuce) germinate best at 55° to 65°F, while warm-season crops (e.g., tomato, petunia, and lobelia) germinate best at 65° to 75°F.


Sometimes horticulturists use temperature in combination with day length to manipulate flowering. For example, a Christmas cactus forms flowers as a result of short days and low temperatures (Figure 26). To encourage a Christmas cactus to bloom, place it in a room with more than 12 hours of darkness each day and a temperature of 50° to 55°F until flower buds form.

If temperatures are high and days are long, cool-season crops such as spinach will flower (bolt). However, if temperatures are too cool, fruit will not set on warm-season crops such as tomato.

Crop Quality

Low temperatures reduce energy use and increase sugar storage. Thus, leaving crops such as ripe winter squash on the vine during cool, fall nights increases their sweetness. Adverse temperatures, however, cause stunted growth and poor-quality vegetables. For example, high temperatures cause bitter lettuce.

Breaking dormancy

Some plants that grow in cold regions need a certain number of days of low temperature (dormancy). Knowing the period of low temperature required by a plant, if any, is essential in getting it to grow to its potential.

Peaches are a prime example; most varieties require 700 to 1,000 hours between 32° and 45°F before breaking their rest period and beginning growth. Lilies need 6 weeks of temperatures at or slightly below 33°F before blooming.

Daffodils can be forced to flower by storing the bulbs at 35° to 40°F in October. The cold temperature allows the bulbs to mature. When transferred to a greenhouse in midwinter, they begin to grow, and flowers are ready to cut in 3 to 4 weeks.


Plants are classified as hardy or nonhardy depending on their ability to withstand cold temperatures. Hardy plants are those that are adapted to the cold temperatures of their growing environment.

Winter injury to plants generally occurs when temperatures drop too quickly in the fall before a plant has progressed to full dormancy. In other cases, a plant may break dormancy in mid or late winter if the weather is unseasonably warm. If a sudden, severe cold snap follows the warm spell, otherwise hardy plants can be seriously damaged. The tops of hardy plants are much more cold-tolerant than the roots. Plants that normally are hardy to 10°F may be killed if they are in containers and the roots are exposed to 20°F.

Cold temperates may also cause desiccation (drying out) of plant tissues. When the soil is frozen, water movement into a plant may become severely restricted. On a windy winter day, broadleaf evergreens can become water-deficient in a few minutes, and the leaves or needles then turn brown. To minimize the risk of this type of injury, make sure your plants go into the winter well watered.


Most growing plants contain about 90% water. Water plays many roles in plants including:

  • A primary component in photosynthesis and respiration

  • Responsible for turgor pressure in cells which affects fullness and firmness of plant tissue. Turgor is needed to maintain cell shape and ensure cell growth.

  • A solvent for minerals and carbohydrates moving through the plant

  • Responsible for cooling leaves as it evaporates from leaf tissue during transpiration

  • A regulator of stomatal opening and closing, thus controlling transpiration and, to some degree, photosynthesis

  • The source of pressure to move roots through the soil

  • The medium in which most biochemical reactions take place


Plants harness energy from the sun and, through photosynthesis, convert that energy into building tissue. Because plants need the sun to grow, many of them, including most fruits and veggies, need a good amount of direct sun during the day. Research has shown some plants prefer shady conditions if you have less light available. Three principal characteristics of light affect plant growth: quantity, quality, and duration.

  • Light quantity refers to the intensity, or concentration, of sunlight.

  • Light quality refers to the color (wavelength) of light.

  • Duration, or photoperiod, refers to the amount of time a plant is exposed to light.


Light quantity varies with the seasons. The maximum amount of light is present in summer, and the minimum in winter. Up to a point, the more sunlight a plant receives, the greater its capacity for producing food via photosynthesis.

You can manipulate light quantity to achieve different plant growth patterns. Increase light by surrounding plants with reflective materials, a white background, or supplemental lights. Decrease it by shading plants with cheesecloth or woven shade cloths.


Sunlight supplies the complete range of wavelengths and can be broken up by a prism into bands of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Blue and red light, which plants absorb, have the greatest effect on plant growth. Blue light is responsible primarily for vegetative (leaf) growth. Red light, when combined with blue light, encourages flowering. Plants look green to us because they reflect, rather than absorb, green light.

Knowing which light source to use is important for manipulating plant growth. For example, fluorescent (cool white) light is high in the blue wavelength. It encourages leafy growth and is excellent for starting seedlings. Incandescent light is high in the red or orange range, but generally produces too much heat to be a valuable light source for plants. Fluorescent grow-lights attempt to imitate sunlight with a mixture of red and blue wavelengths, but they are costly and generally no better than regular fluorescent lights.


Duration, or photoperiod, refers to the amount of time a plant is exposed to light. Photoperiod controls flowering in many plants (Figure 26). Scientists initially thought the length of light period triggered flowering and other responses within plants. Thus, they describe plants as short-day or long-day, depending on what conditions they flower under. We now know that it is not the length of the light period, but rather the length of uninterrupted darkness, that is critical to floral development.

Plants are classified into three categories: short-day (long-night), long-day (short-night), or day-neutral, depending on their response to the duration of light or darkness. Short-day plants form flowers only when day length is less than about 12 hours. Many spring- and fall-flowering plants, such as chrysanthemum, poinsettia, and Christmas cactus, are in this category.

In contrast, long-day plants form flowers only when day length exceeds 12 hours. Most summer flowering plants (e.g., rudbeckia, California poppy, and aster), as well as many vegetables (beet, radish, lettuce, spinach, and potato), are in this category.

Day-neutral plants form flowers regardless of day length. Examples are tomato, corn, cucumber, and some strawberry cultivars. Some plants do not fit into any category, but may respond to combinations of day lengths. Petunias, for example, flower regardless of day length, but flower earlier and more profusely with long days.

You can easily manipulate photoperiod to stimulate flowering. For example, chrysanthemums normally flower in the short days of spring or fall, but you can get them to bloom in midsummer by covering them with a cloth that completely blocks out light for 12 hours each day. After several weeks of this treatment, the artificial dark period no longer is needed, and the plants will bloom as if it were spring or fall. This method also is used to make poinsettias flower in time for Christmas.

To bring a long-day plant into flower when day length is less than 12 hours, expose the plant to supplemental light. After a few weeks, flower buds will form.


Once a plant has started sprout, the presence of water in air, in addition to the soil or growing medium starts to influence growth. Relative humidity (RH) is the ratio of water vapor in the air to the amount of water the air could hold at the current temperature and pressure. Warm air can hold more water vapor than cold air. RH is expressed by the following equation:

RH=waterinair÷wateraircanholdRH = water\:in\:air ÷ water\:air\:can\:hold

RH is given as a percent. For example, if a pound of air at 75°F could hold 4 grams of water vapor, and there are only 3 grams of water in the air, then the relative humidity (at constant temperature and pressure) is:

3÷4=0.75=75%3 ÷ 4 = 0.75 = 75\%

Water vapor moves from an area of high relative humidity to one of low relative humidity. The greater the difference in humidity, the faster water moves. This factor is important because the rate of water movement directly affects a plant's transpiration rate.

The relative humidity in the air spaces between leaf cells approaches 100 percent. When a stoma opens, water vapor inside the leaf rushes out into the surrounding air, and a bubble of high humidity forms around the stoma. By saturating this small area of air, the bubble reduces the difference in relative humidity between the air spaces within the leaf and the air adjacent to the leaf. As a result, transpiration slows down.

If wind blows the humidity bubble away, however, transpiration increases. Thus, transpiration usually is at its peak on hot, dry, windy days. On the other hand, transpiration generally is quite slow when temperatures are cool, humidity is high, and there is no wind.

Hot, dry conditions generally occur during the summer, which partially explains why plants wilt quickly in the summer. If a constant supply of water is not available to be absorbed by the roots and moved to the leaves, turgor pressure is lost and leaves go limp.


Plant nutrition is the study of the chemical elements and compounds necessary for plant growth, plant metabolism and their external supply. Plant nutrition often is confused with fertilization. Plant nutrition refers to a plant's need for and use of basic chemical elements. Fertilization is the term used when these materials are added to the environment around a plant. A lot must happen before a chemical element in a fertilizer can be used by a plant. In its absence the plant is unable to complete a normal life cycle, or that the element is part of some essential plant constituent or metabolite.

Plants need 17 elements for normal growth. Three of them--carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen--are found in air and water. The rest are found in the soil. Six soil elements are called macronutrients because they are used in relatively large amounts by plants. They are nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and sulfur. Carbon, oxygen and hydrogen are absorbed from the air, whereas other nutrients including nitrogen are typically obtained from the soil (exceptions include some parasitic or carnivorous plants). Plants must obtain the following mineral nutrients from their growing medium:


Micronutrients (trace minerals)

nitrogen (N)

iron (Fe)

phosphorus (P)

boron (B)

calcium (Ca)

chlorine (Cl)

sulfur (S)

manganese (Mn)

magnesium (Mg)

zinc (Zn)

carbon (C)

copper (Cu)

oxygen (O)

molybdenum (Mo)

hydrogen (H)

nickel (Ni)


  1. Wikipedia, Plant nutrition (2021)

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