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Big Bluestem Roots, A Diversity of Plants is Stronger Together than Alone

A Diversity of Plants is Stronger Together than Alone: A Look at Roots

I have a confession to make…there is a certain beauty to a monoculture.  The structure is uniform, the color is a consistent shade, and the roll of the land is accentuated by the evenness.  However, the more I learn, the more I find beauty in a diversity of native plants.  My deeper understanding of the beauty of native plant diversity began below ground with the plants’ root systems as I began to see the range of functions.  

Early on, I learned to love the deep roots of grassland plants.  Who wouldn’t love the look of a green grassland in a drought as these plants sink their roots up to 15 feet deep in the soil to get water?  Furthermore, these plants get hold of the nutrients from the dark depths all the while building organic matter in the soil as deep as the roots can reach.  The native warm season grasses, such as Big Bluestem, Indiangrass, Eastern Gama Grass, and Switchgrass are legendary for their impressive root systems that look like a thick head of hair. 

There are other seekers of the deep places that look very different yet still very impressive.  Compass Plant reaches into the depths as its 10-foot carrot-shaped root looks like a meal for a giant.  Leadplant also reaches down a great measure into the soil.  However, its roots appear a bit more like thick shoelaces, an image which is strengthened by the settlers’ description of the roots snapping with a sound like that of a shoestring breaking when the native grasslands were plowed. 

I understood the function of deep roots to get water and nutrients hidden deep within the soil, but I did not appreciate the comparatively wimpy root system of a Sawtooth Sunflower or Cup Plant until the day I was examining the root system of the Sunflower.  Now understand that I had long appreciated these plants for their contribution to wildlife habitat, their bright yellow blooms, and their palatability to livestock, but their root systems are nothing to brag about since they only extend a foot or maybe two into the ground.  As I was examining the Sunflower’s root system though, I observed old, dead roots attached to the living roots of the plant.  It appeared that each year this plant grew a new root system, and I realized that the beauty of the Sunflower’s root system is really in the rotting, dead roots.  The notion of seeing beauty in rotting roots sounds a bit odd but follow with me a moment.  I have read that woody plant material can create long-term organic matter in the soil, and it looked to me like the Sunflower’s woody root structures would do just that and in so doing tie up carbon dioxide and make the soil more productive.  Also, while these woody roots, which are similar in size, shape, and number to the fingers on your hand, are decomposing, they begin to look like a porous sponge into which rain water can rapidly flow then seep into the soil.  This, I have concluded, is a beautiful, regenerative root system!

I continue to study roots because there are other plants that I do not yet understand the beauty of their root systems, but I have confidence that they complement each other by design.  If you want to see the root systems and of some native plants, watch our video at  Don’t forget to join us for a pasture walk on May 14th or June 4th to understand how to establish natives and more of the beauty in using a Diverse Native Grassland for cattle forage.  Then, build on your knowledge of grazing Diverse Native Grasslands at our June 5th field day where we will examine how a diversity of plants is stronger together than alone. 

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