The History and Science of Epsom Salts

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This natural mineral, discovered in the well water of Epsom, England, has been used for hundreds of years, not only to fertilize plants but to treat a range of human and animal ailments. Who hasn’t soaked sore feet in it at least once?

Chemically, Epsom salts is hydrated magnesium sulfate (about 10 percent magnesium and 13 percent sulfur).

Magnesium is critical for seed germination and the production of chlorophyll, fruit, and nuts. Magnesium helps strengthen cell walls and improves plants’ uptake of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

Sulfur, a key element in plant growth, is critical to production of vitamins, amino acids (therefore protein), and enzymes. It’s also the compound that gives vegetables such as broccoli and onions their flavors. Sulfur is seldom deficient in garden soils in North America because acid rain and commonly used animal manures contain sulfur, as do chemical fertilizers such as ammonium sulfate.

The causes and effects of magnesium deficiencies vary. Vegetables such as beans, peas, lettuce, and spinach can grow and produce good yields in soils with low magnesium levels, but plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and roses need high levels of magnesium for optimal growth. However, plants may not show the effects of magnesium deficiency until it’s severe. Some common deficiency symptoms are yellowing of the leaves between the veins, leaf curling, stunted growth, and lack of sweetness in the fruit.

Magnesium tends to be lacking in old, weathered soils with low pH, notably in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest. Soils with a pH above 7 and soils high in calcium and potassium also generally have low magnesium levels. Calcium and potassium compete with magnesium for uptake by plant roots, and magnesium often loses. Sometimes, a soil test will show adequate magnesium levels in soil, but a plant grown in that soil may still be deficient because of that competition.

Gardeners add magnesium when they apply dolomitic lime to raise the soil’s pH. However, this product (46 percent calcium carbonate, 38 percent magnesium carbonate) breaks down slowly, and the calcium can interfere with magnesium uptake. For soils with a pH above 7, many gardeners use Sul-Po-Mag (22 percent sulfur, 22 percent potassium, 11 percent magnesium) to increase magnesium. Although dolomitic lime and Sul-Po-Mag are inexpensive ways to add magnesium, Epsom salts’ advantage over them is its high solubility.

When diluted with water, and especially when applied as a foliar spray, Epsom salts can be taken up quickly by plants. Epsom salts’ magnesium content, high solubility, and ease of application as a foliar spray are the main reasons for the positive results many gardeners see in their plants.

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