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Remote Sensing: Plant Life

Plants are a critical part of any healthy ecosystem. It is important to monitor plant coverage of the land as well as plant health as an indicator of environmental change.

  • Plant Health
  • Photosynthesis
  • Resources

Young Plant

The main factors that influence plant growth are temperature, the availability of water, the availability of nutrients, and sunlight. Scientists refer to these as “limiting factors” to plant growth. If each of these factors is available in abundance, then plants will generally thrive. But if one or more of these factors is very low, then often plant growth is limited, or even halted. Human settlement and land use can greatly impact native plant life and plays an important role in ecosystem health.

There are 16 essential nutrients plants need to survive. Some are absorbed from the air through the leaves of the plant, but most are absorbed from the soil through the roots of the plant. You can see the list of nutrients and their uses here.

Plant with FungusPhosphorous Deficiency

Just as humans can catch diseases or viruses, plants can get sick. This can be from a lack of nutrients in the ground or an outside predator overusing the plant for food. The photo at right shows a leaf with phosphorous deficiency. Too much of a resource is also bad for plants. For example, too much water can lead to fungus growth, as seen on this leaf in the photo at the far right.

Fertilizers and pesticides are the most common way of giving plants the nutrients they need and protecting them from disease or pests.

Photosynthesis is the process by which plants breath and eat. Plants have special mechanisms to convert carbon dioxide and water from their surroundings into sugars, usually in the form of fruit, and oxygen, which is released into the air we breathe.

Photosynthesis cyclePhotosynthesis


How do you know if your plants are healthy and thriving? How do you know if you're giving them enough nutrients, sunlight and water? Or too much? Each plant is different. In general, taller plants with lots of leaves indicate a healthy plant.

USDA logoThe United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture website offers comprehensive, up-to-date information on plants, nutrients, pest management, and weather and climate. They also offer an Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

There are US Animal Plant Inspection service offices located in Great Falls (727-0327) and Bozeman (994-5031).

The Montana Plant Life website lists several plant species found in Montana, providing descriptions of each species, along with photos and flowering season.

For plant disease control information, you can navigate the Pacific Northwest Plant Disease Management Handbook website or purchase the book.

The Morton Arboretum offers advice for caring for different types of plants and dealing with different types of pests.