Monday, March 26, 2012

Shade, drought, and ???

That the availability of nutrients determines how plants grow is a relatively recent discovery, at least compared to light and water.

The word "shade" is relatively new to English, but the etymology for "shade" goes back to the roots on many languages. "Dark" is an old word, too. Latin had the word "umbra", which gave English "umbrella", for example. In short, people have thinking about shade for a long time.

"Drought"/"drouth" or "dry" extends back just as far. Latin had "siccus", which gave English "desiccate", for example. The Latin "desert" was not a dry place, but something abandoned, while the Hebrew word Negev meant a for dry place, not just a place deserted.

Dry places, dry times. Shady places. All have deep roots in a number of languages. Places or times devoid of nutrients? No equivalent. Hence, I can talk about droughts and deserts or shade and represent the low availability of resources. I can't do that with nutrients. The word "nutrient" derives from the Latin "to nourish"--nutrire, but it generated no analog to drought, dry, or shade.

The closest I can get for nutrients is "barren", which has been applied to unproductive
land in Europe for almost a millennium. In the US, for example, we have The Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

Hutchinson (1994) reviewed the use of the word "barrens" in North America. In describing some of the Midwestern barrens he wrote,

"It appears that where the soils were leached and poor, places that were flat with a hardpan soil often supported post oak flatwoods and barrens....There were also places where the soils were either very alkaline or deficient in certain nutrients, so that trees didn't grow well. "Scalds" were mentioned by the early residents as occurring in several Illinois counties, and some of these are described in the early soils survey reports (Hopkins et al. 1913)."

The frustrating thing is that it makes it hard to talk about areas with low nutrient availability. I think "barren" is the word to use for now, though unfortunately it also refers to low reproductive fertility.


  1. Interesting. Did not realize the extent to which language could actually influence research and analysis that way. Pete

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