Are Your Cannabis Plants Healthy? How Can You Tell?

Many cultivators rely on visual indicators to determine plant health but data might be the key to revealing what’s missing from your plant’s “diet.”

Like all living things, plants need resources to fuel their growth and maintain their health so they can produce whatever it is their ecosystem values them for. For consumable cannabis (i.e. not industrial hemp), this happens to be their buds and the cannabinoids and terpenes within them that humans are still discovering new uses for. If a cannabis plant has an imbalance of resources, specifically the nutrients that drive its biological processes, then it will not produce to its full potential or it may not even survive. 

In the past, cultivators have relied on observing the visible characteristics of their plants in order to make educated determinations about what nutrients a plant might be lacking or getting too much of. But what if we could run tests on the plant, like doing blood work on an animal, to get a more complete picture of overall health? Well, now we can! 

What is Plant Nutrient Analysis?

As mentioned above, cannabis plants need nutrients to maintain their health, grow larger, and produce buds. More specifically, they need certain macronutrients, like phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and calcium, and they also need micronutrients, like boron, copper, chlorine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and zinc. 

All of these are involved in various processes like photosynthesis and flower production among others, but too much or too little of any of these nutrients can create an imbalance that hinders normal biological functions. Performing a nutrient analysis, like the one we run here at MCR Labs, can uncover potential deficiencies and toxic excesses in nutrient uptake that disrupt healthy maturation and production.

By digesting a leaf or other plant matter in a strong acid, we can then use inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) to see what elements are present in the plant tissue. This allows us to identify individual micro and macronutrients and quantify them to a sensitivity of parts per billion (ppb). Getting this extremely acute breakdown of elemental ratios inside the plant gives growers the information they can leverage to make dramatic improvements to their cultivation practices. 

How Can Nutrient Analysis Help Growers?

There are several ways the data provided by a nutrient analysis can aid growers in getting the most out of their plants. Depending on which stage of the growing cycle this testing is performed during, we can assess plant health, determine necessary adjustments, and even discover what aspects of the growing environment might be affecting nutrient uptake. 

Detecting Hidden Problems

Certain deficiencies or imbalances can manifest in visible changes to the plants like leaves turning brown or beginning to fall off. Nutrient analysis can help growers discover the underlying issues before they begin to emerge physically. Additionally, it can reveal nutrient-related problems that might not affect the plant’s outward appearance but could still affect yield or cannabinoid production. 

Optimizing Nutrient Feeding

In addition to being grown in well-balanced soil, cannabis plants are often “fed” additional nutrients throughout the growing cycle. Seeing how plants are absorbing nutrients at different stages of growth enables growers to adjust nutrient ratios via feeding to ensure plants have just the right balance of nutrients to reach their full potential. This could also save growers money since different phenotypes of cannabis take up nutrients at different rates, and only using what’s needed would prevent wasting expensive nutrients on plants that won’t absorb them.

Trend Analysis

The more data growers have at their disposal, the better able they are to understand when, why, and from where their plants are getting nutrients. While seeing this data once can help refine the nutrient mix for one crop, monitoring this data over time can help uncover changes that may be occurring within the growing environment that can affect the output from batch to batch.

There’s Power in Numbers

While helping individual growers is the primary benefit to Plant Nutrient Analysis, it has the potential to be an incredibly powerful tool for expanding our collective knowledge about how to get the best out of each cannabis plant being grown. As more independent cannabis testing labs like MCR Labs begin to explore offering nutrient analysis, the exponential growth of data at our disposal can be leveraged to improve growing practices for home growers and professional cultivators alike. 

With every new data point collected, we have the potential to see more reliably how deficiencies in one nutrient can create excesses of another and vice versa. If we can discover consistency in these kinds of trends, we’ll be able to offer guidance for refining nutrient mixtures, adjust feeding schedules, and design a roadmap that shows how to maximize the production of cannabis plants for the benefit of patients, consumers, and the entire cannabis community.

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