The plant the central object of study - soil, climate, atmosphere, etc., are factors of its environment. Agricultural chemistry. The plant a machine. Physiology.
If I were asked to sum up the most important result of the numerous advances made during the past decade in agriculture and forestry, I should reply - the clearer and wider recognition of the fact that the plant itself is the centre of the subject, and not the soil, climate, season, or other factors of its environment. Until comparatively recent times it was the habit of farmers, foresters, planters, and gardeners, all the world over, to look upon the plant as a mere item or as a mysterious if important one in their calculations, and to regard the soil as the chief factor in their studies.
Now all is changing, and the world is gradually awakening more and more to the recognition of the truth that the soil and the clouds and the atmosphere are merely reservoirs of more or less inert materials, from which the living plant draws its supplies, and works them up, by means of energy focused from the sun, into new plant substance.
In other words, the more far-seeing pioneers of scientific agriculture and forestry, etc., are recognising that agricultural chemistry is not the be-all and end-all of agricultural science; but that, in place of the study of the chemical analyses of dead soil, water, air, and plant-remains, which has so long held sway, largely owing, I think, to the influence of Liebig, the student should have his attention more concentrated on the living plant itself and on the physiological actions which make up its life. He must regard the living plant as a sort of working machine-infinitely more complex than any machine made by man, but a machine nevertheless-the purpose of which is to store up energy from the sun, and so to add to our wealth on this planet, at the expense of the extraterrestrial universe.
It is not, be it noted, that the new study proposes to ignore or abandon the old studies: modern physiology owes too much to the physics and chemistry on which it is partly based, and to the labours of De Saussure, Ingenhousz, Priestley, and others, for that. But it is that the new study recognises that the central point, to which all views must be focused, is not the one that it was formerly supposed to be. The student is still taught that the chemistry of soils yields valuable information, and that lessons of importance are derived from comparisons of the analyses of the ashes, etc., of plants; but he is no longer able to cherish the hope, however remotely, that such studies solve his most important problems.
The scene - or rather the point to which attention is now directed - is the living, working, energy - accumulating plant itself, and not the dead store of materials in the soil. The reason for the change is not far to seek: it is due to the enormous strides made in the study of the physiology of plants during the last quarter of a century, and the subject abounds in examples illustrating the marvellous advances that have been made, and at the same time showing how, in the progress of researches, made for their own sake - i.e. in pursuit of satisfaction for the intense curiosity of the scientific man - all kinds of side issues turn up which prove to be of value in practice, and suggestive of further thinking.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century - i.e. about 1820 - the best thinkers were giving up the old ideas that the environment supplied food, as such, to plants, and had recognised that the plant takes up substances from without and rearranges these in its own body.
The next twenty years or so form a very dark interval in plant physiology, chiefly owing to the influence of the assumption of a special "vital force," an assumption which was not allowed merely to serve as a hypothesis put forward to stimulate research and suggest better ideas, but which gained a hold over men's powers of reasoning to an extent which now appears monstrous and phenomenal.
Many errors crept in during this reign of terror, one of the most fatal of which was De Candolle's revival of the idea of "spongioles"; and another, equally disastrous in many of its effects, was the conception of a sort of vegetable food-extract, humus, existing in the soil in a form peculiarly suitable for direct use by plants. It was during this period that the confusion between the processes of respiration and carbon-dioxide assimilation arose, and exerted its effects for evil into our own day.
The now astounding statement that oxygen-respiration in plants did not occur, laid the foundation of many subsequent difficulties, and so did the positive and authoritative views on the uses of minerals to the plant. Liebig, in fact, stood in the invidious position of being a high authority on purely chemical questions, who was impelled to give opinions on matters which can only be solved by physiological experiments: his great service was to clear up mistakes as regards the chemistry of soils and of plants - his great mistakes were due to his pronouncing on physiological matters; and it may be doubted whether his great services to the purely chemical side of subjects connected with agricultural matters are the more to be admired, or the disastrous influence of his statements on subjects which do not belong to the domain of chemistry should be the more deplored. Be that as it may, he handed on to succeeding generations some weighty errors as regards plant - life, and taught the agriculturist to regard chemical analyses of soils and plant ashes with a reverence which obstructed progress for some time. As a set-off to this we must place his contributions to the destruction of the bugbear vitalism, which was simply preventing enquiry, and his services in bringing together and sifting with power and originality all that had been then acquired as regards the chemistry of the plant, the soil, and the atmosphere.
That Liebig was indispensable in 1840 - 1850 is one thing; but that his influence should extend to the present day is quite another, and his inevitable mistakes were almost as powerful for future evil, as his clear exposition of the chemistry of his day was productive of immediate good.
Boussingault, working at the same time, 1837 - 1855, but experimentally with the living plant, taught us more about these matters than any investigator of the time, though it is very probable that the stimulus of Liebig's speculations, good and bad, had its effect in impelling Boussingault to devote his splendid methods to problems of plant-nutrition. Boussingault's contributions to our knowledge of the composition of the dead plant cannot be over-estimated; but he did more than this, because he so clearly apprehended the necessity for asking his questions directly of the living plant, instead of deducing from chemical principles what might be supposed to occur in it; and although future researches showed that even so careful an investigator solved a problem of first importance - viz. the question of the fixation of free nitrogen - the wrong way, it will be found that so far as he did go his conclusions were sound, and well calculated to inspire the confidence with which the world received them. As we are here concerned more especially with the botany of agriculture, however, it is unnecessary to dwell longer on these matters, or on the similar and even more extensive experiments, of world-wide reputation, carried on for so many years, and still being carried on under the liberal auspices of Sir John Lawes, at Rothamsted. Moreover it may be necessary to return to some of these points later on.
The reader will find a further general account of these matters in Sachs' Lectures on the Physiology of Plants, especially Lectures I. and XII., Engl, ed., Oxford, 1887. He may then proceed to Pfeffer's Physiology of Plants, Engl. ed., 1899, chapter I., and to the account of the history of the subject in Sachs' History of Botany, Oxford, 1890, especially pp. 359 - 375 and 445 - 524. References to more special literature will be found in Pfeffer.