Bruce Tainio pioneered the use of plant sap pH as an indicator for disease and insect susceptibility in 1988. We have used this tool in our consulting work since the beginning, and have found it invaluable. Today, pH is included in lab sap analysis because of Bruce’s work.
More recently, we have learned from Olivier Husson’s work, that measuring pH by itself is incomplete, since the environmental parameters organisms require to become virulent are at least two dimensional, as they are determined by both Eh and pH, not by pH alone.
Bruce wrote this outline we shared in our newsletter in 2010, and it is still relevant today.
Plant Tissue pH = Energy
By Bruce Tainio
While laboratory soil and tissue tests are good and necessary tools, we often don’t receive the results for several days, or even up to two weeks in some cases. On a growing crop, that can be too late. With this in mind, we developed a diagnosis of plant health based on liquid pH values of plant tissue sap, which has been used in our biological program at Tainio Technology & Technique since 1989.
Simple to use and 100 percent accurate, a quick plant tissue pH test is an instant snapshot of the state of health of any plant and can tell us the following information:
- Enzymatic breakdown of carbohydrates (sugars) for proper growth and vitality of the plant.
- Risk potential for insect damage.
- Risk potential for foliage disease attack.
- Nutritional balance in the growing crop.
- Quality of nutrition in the fresh fruit or vegetable crop to be harvested.
- Shelf storage potential of fresh fruits and vegetables.
The table below is a general guideline to determine what tissue pH means. With this scale we can predict the probability of insect and disease resistance or susceptibility.
The dictionary defines pH as “a number equal to the logarithm of the reciprocal of hydrogen ion concentration within a solution.” That’s a mouthful, but more simply put, pH represents the percentage of hydrogen ions in a solution. In our case, the solution is the liquid of the plant cell, or the sap.
It is important to know that a change in the pH level of a solution of just one unit equals a tenfold change in the hydrogen ion concentration. If the pH is increased or decreased by two units, the hydrogen ion concentration changes by a hundredfold! Thus we can see why what appears to be only a slight shift in pH can spell disaster for the farmer.
A neutral pH of 7 within the cell fluid means it contains 100 percent saturation of cations other than hydrogen (in other words, the sap contains no free hydrogen ions). At a plant’s ideal cellular fluid pH of 6.4, the saturation of cations other than hydrogen is about 88 percent. At 88 percent saturation – principally of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium – the ionization and activity of these elements generates an electrical frequency of between 7.5 and 32 Hertz, which is one of the “healthy” frequency ranges of all living cells.
To decrease cellular pH to 6.0 is to lower the saturation of the above four principle elements to 80 percent, thus lowering the plant’s frequency to a level of lower resistance to bacterial, fungal and viral plant pathogens.
Studies have shown that insects are attracted to a tree or plant by the tree or plant’s frequency. If the saturation of Ca, Mg, K and Na increases to over 88 percent saturation, the frequency from these ions in the cell are increased, and consequently, insects are attracted to the higher-than-normal cell frequency.
The same process occurs in animal and human cells. Hydrogen accumulation in the cell tissue means the saturation of Ca, Mg, K and Na is decreasing, thus causing the frequency to decline. This low frequency leaves the cell an easy target for disease.
Oftentimes we see both insect and disease problems occurring at the same time. This can happen when insects attack due to a high plant tissue pH, and the tissue becomes weakened in the localized areas of attack. Next, localized, rapid energy loss (a drop in pH) occurs at the insect-damaged spots, resulting in tissue disease attack of those areas on the plant.
When a pH shift of a half point (0.5) or more from the ideal 6.4 occurs in the cellular liquid, a laboratory tissue test should be taken to determine exact imbalances and which materials should be applied.
Tissue pH Rule of Thumb
Low pH + Moderate Brix = Calcium Deficiency
Low pH + Low Brix = Potassium Deficiency
6.4 pH + High Brix = Balance
In the interim, for a quick adjustment to bring up the pH, calcium can be foliar applied in small amounts per acre. To quickly bring down a pH that is too high, on the other hand, small amounts of phosphate can be applied to the foliage. These types of quick fixes are usually only temporary, however, and should only be used while awaiting a complete tissue test analysis.
Like most busy people, we have neither the time nor the patience to puree the two pounds of plant tissue it takes to get enough for a conventional pH meter readings; so we use the Cardy Twin drop pH tester, made by Horiba. With this pH meter, a reading can be taken out in the field in less than one minute. We just take a few leaves, roll them up into a tight ball, and squeeze out a few drops of sap using a garlic press. Be sure and use a good quality stainless-steel press, as a cheaply made garlic press will break.
Generally, the more mature leaves on the plant will give the most accurate picture of the plant’s health, level of resistance or susceptibility to problems. Since the plant spends most of its energy supporting new growth, the pH of new leaves will not reflect the pH of the rest of the plant as a whole.
pH & SUGAR
An indirect method of determining the energy levels of a plant is to measure the carbohydrate (sugar) levels in the cell liquid. For this test, a refractometer is used to determine the level of sucrose in the cellular fluid. This reading is referred to as the brix scale.
Within a given species of plant, the crop with the higher refractive index will have a higher sugar content, a higher mineral content, a higher protein content and a greater density. This adds up to sweeter-tasting, more nutritious food with a lower nitrate and water content and better storage characteristics. Such produce will generate more alcohol from fermented sugars and be more resistant to insects, reducing the need for insecticides. Crops with higher sugar contents will also have a lower freezing point and therefore be less prone to frost damage. Soil fertility needs can also be ascertained from this reading.
The brix levels should not be taken as an exact measurement of a plant’s vitality, but rather as a guideline. Stored sugar is not a cellular energy source until its carbon-hydrogen-oxygen molecular links are enzymatically broken apart. If this line breaks or energy release occurs faster than the cell can use it, then that energy is lost into the air. This condition usually occurs when the liquid pH of the cell is below 6.4 and most often indicates low Ca and high K.
The reverse can also occur – if the links between the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules of a sugar are broken too slowly due to low enzyme activity, the plant becomes starved for the energy it needs for growth. This is usually caused by low manganese or zinc, or from high nitrogen/high tissue pH levels, coupled with drought stress.
As a general rule, we can say that when a plant has a low tissue pH and a moderate brix level, there is usually a calcium deficiency involved. On the other hand, a low pH with a low brix level usually indicates a potassium deficiency. The ultimate goal is to achieve a pH of 6.4 with a high brix level.
Plant tissue pH management is a relatively small but invaluable investment of your time and budget, which cannot only help you prevent disease or insect attacks, it can stop them in their tracks even once they have gotten started. This means better yields, bigger profits and most importantly, less need for chemicals.