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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

Getting to the root of “it”


Plants are amazing organisms. They can turn sunlight into food; they have developed some amazing defenses against their predators; and many of them are simply beautiful. But one of the most amazing things about plants is the parts that you never see. The roots are just as amazing as the flowers, leaves, and stems. On the surface you cannot see the roots, and they may seem a little boring and insignificant. This could not be further from the truth. The root systems of a plant provide a number of things not only for the plants that they are attached to, but for the soil and everything that lives in the soil.

On the most basic level, roots provide a foundation for plants giving them a way to stay firmly in place. If you have tried to pull weeds, you know that some are stronger than others. The root's most visible function is to hold plants in place, but that is not the only thing that roots hold in place. A heathy plant community will have a very extensive root system, and this will keep soil in place. One of the best examples of this is beach grass. If you have been to a sandy shore recently, you may have noticed that there are grasses that grow along the edges of the beach and on the dunes. These grasses have extensive root systems that stabilize the sand and keep it from washing or blowing away. The same thing happens in our yards and fields. If there is a healthy root system in place (like a lawn or crops in the field), there is significantly less soil erosion.

The roots also feed the plants. I am sure you all remember this from 8th grade science class, but there is more to it than just the roots taking up water and nutrients into the plant. We all think of roots as being big and permanent, but a plant will send out runner roots to explore the area for nutrients. These thin runner roots will "explore" an area, and if there is not enough nutrients, the roots will die off and other runners will be sent out to explore a different area. Roots are also very important in making sure that water and nutrients can infiltrate into the soil. As roots explore and die off, they create pathways for water to get into the soil. This is important particularly when we have heavy rains. The faster a piece of property can allow infiltration of water into the soil the less that will run off and become an issue for our cities, towns, and waterways.

Roots also are major contributors to the organic matter in the soil. Organic matter in the soil is what gives it the deep, dark color, and high organic content is what makes soil in Illinois such nice soil. There are many benefits to organic matter in the soil, including providing nutrients and water retention. Historically, the deep roots of the prairies in Illinois created this amazing black soil. As the root systems died off or simply died back a little, the roots that were left allowed for high organic content in the soil.

The root systems of many of the native prairie species went down as far as 20 feet and would allow for deep water infiltration and high percentage of organic matter in the soil. The prairies provided many benefits that have been lost with the heavy use of turf grasses with shallow root systems (6 to 10 inches).

If you have any questions about Natural Resources, please contact Jason Haupt (jdhaupt@illinois.edu).



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