Plant mineral deficiency symptoms are quite complex because each nutrient has a number of different biological functions and each function may have an independent set of interactions with a wide range of environmental parameters. In addition, the expression of these symptoms varies for acute or chronic deficiency conditions. Acute deficiency occurs when a nutrient is suddenly no longer available to a rapidly growing plant. Chronic deficiency occurs when there is a limited but continuous supply of a nutrient, at a rate that is insufficient to meet the growth demands of the plant.
Most of the classic deficiency symptoms described in textbooks are characteristic of acute deficiencies. The most common symptoms of low-grade, chronic deficiencies are a tendency towards darker green leaves and stunted or slow growth. Typically most published descriptions of deficiency symptoms arise from experiments conducted in greenhouses or growth chambers where the plants are grown in hydroponics or in media where the nutrients are fully available. In these conditions, nutrients are readily available while present, but when a nutrient is depleted, the plant suddenly faces an acute deficiency. Thus, hydroponic studies favor the development of acute deficiencies.
In experiments designed to study micronutrient deficiency symptoms, micronutrients are usually omitted from the nutrient solution. Micronutrients are often present in the seed or as contaminants in the environment, so a plant of adequate size will exhaust these trace amounts of micronutrient and develop characteristic acute deficiency systems. When deficiency symptoms of macronutrients are sought, the macronutrient is removed suddenly from a suitable sized rapidly growing plant. Alternatively the plant can initially be given a one-time supply of the nutrient that is sufficient for a limited amount of growth. Because macronutrients are continuously required in relatively large amounts by rapidly growing plants, the available nutrients will be rapidly depleted, resulting in an acute deficiency.
In natural systems, the plant encounters many degrees and types of stresses that result in different types of symptoms occurring over time. Perhaps the most common nutrient deficiency in natural environments is the case of a limited nutrient supply that is continuously renewed at a low rate from soil weathering processes. In such cases, the limited nutrient availability results in chronic nutrient deficiency symptoms.