Quantities of starch formed, and their significance for the plant. The absorption of energy - the conversion of energy in the plant. The plant is a complex machine for concentrating and storing energy and material from without.
SACHS measured the increase in dry weight (due to the carbohydrates formed in the chlorophyll-corpuscles) per square meter of leaf-surface, exposed for a definite period, by drying rapidly at 1oo°C. equal areas of the leaves concerned, and comparing the weights.
Of course the results are not to be pushed too far, in view of the fact that some of the starch is continually passing away to be utilised, and of the difficulties of comparing the weather, the intensity of light, currents of air, hygroscopic conditions of atmosphere, and other variable factors which influence the matter. For instance, the stomata open and close to different extents according to the conditions of light and moisture, and this affects the whole mechanism of transpiration especially, and therefore the supplies of water and mineral salts. Nevertheless, some interesting and valuable results have been obtained in connection with this important subject.
It was found, for instance, that the foliage of a sun-flower or of a vegetable-marrow may be forming starch at a rate of considerably over a gram per hour in every square meter of leaf-surface exposed on a fine day; while in particularly clear and warm sunny weather Sachs obtained as much as 24 to 25 grams per square meter per diem.
When one reflects that 200 square meters is not an extravagant estimate for the area of leaf-surface exposed on a tree, for a period which even in our latitudes may be considerably over 100 days of, say, ten hours' light, we need no longer wonder at the rapidity with which wood is produced in the stems, and similar estimates (which I have purposely kept lower than the estimates for continental and tropical climates) may suffice to show how quickly potatoes or the ears of corn, etc., may fill up with the starch or other carbohydrates which render them valuable as crops. We want more measurements in these connections, moreover, for there are several ways in which they are of scientific value and practical importance.
It is evident from what has been said that every grain of starch formed represents so much energy, packed away for the moment in the storehouses of the plant; and we know that - quite apart, however, from intermediate transformations of the energy thus stored - this energy reappears in the kinetic state eventually, when the starch is burned off, in presence of oxygen, and transformed into carbon-dioxide and water. It matters not how quickly or how gradually this combustion occurs, or whether it is accomplished by burning in a fire, or by slow and complex stages in respiration or metabolism: the point is that the unit of weight of starch yields so many units of heat when its structure tumbles down to the original components, carbon-dioxide and water.
Clearly, if we know how many units of heat are yielded by the combustion of one gram of starch, we can obtain an estimate of the amount of energy, measured in terms of heat, which the foliage gains and stores up - an estimate which will approach the truth in proportion as our estimate of the total assimilative activity is correct.
A word of warning is necessary here, however, for those best acquainted with physiology recognise that however useful such calculations as the above may be, and undoubtedly are, to give a general idea of the fact that the energy represented is large, it would be a mistake to suppose that such estimates give even an approximate measure of the energy of potential which may be got from the carbohydrate, and still less of the amount of work that may be got from its employment, according to the way it is employed or presented in the plant. To take a single instance only. If the carbohydrate is rapidly burned off to carbon-dioxide and water, very little is got out of it in the way of work - most, if not all, of the energy set free escapes as heat: whereas if the carbohydrate is slowly and gradually oxydised, passing through various stages and giving rise to powerfully osmotic bodies in the process, or if it is built up into protoplasm, or into the structure of a cell-wall, relatively enormous quantities of work may be got out of its surface-energy, and heat may be absorbed. Whence it follows that we cannot measure the power for physiological work of a body by merely obtaining its heat of combustion, any more than we can infer its significance in metabolism from its chemical properties.
The general conclusion that the plant stores large quantities of energy may of course be arrived at by simply estimating the enormous quantities of food-material which we obtain annually from agricultural plants.
Modern physiologists have attempted to proceed further than this, however, in their essays to form an estimate of the relations between the available energy in the solar rays and that used and stored in the plant.
If we reflect on such phenomena as the cool shade of a tree, and the deep gloom of a forest, and on experiments which show that an ordinary leaf certainly lets very little of the radiant energy of the spectrum pass through it, it becomes evident that many of the rays which fall on the leaf are absorbed in some form, and it becomes very probable that much of the solar energy, other than that we term light, is retained in the leaf for other purposes than assimilation - or, at least, no other conclusion seems possible in view of all the facts. Engelmann's researches with purple bacteria are almost conclusive on this point, and we may regard it as extremely probable that the plant makes other uses of rays, perceived by us as heat-rays, as sources of energy. Researches on the influences of temperature on assimilation and other functions point to the same conclusion; and Pfeffer and Rodemann definitely state that heat is converted into work in the osmotic cells. And the study of the absorption bands in the spectrum of the living leaf becomes more intelligible in the light of these conclusions. Moreover, the fact that a plant still carries on processes of metabolism when active transpiration has lowered its temperature below that of the surrounding air - and the plant therefore receives heat from the environment - points to similar conclusions.