U.S. Botanic Garden Exposes the Secret Life of Roots

Secret Life of Roots. Cover

This weekend I visited the United States Botanic Garden (USBG) where I stumbled upon an unusual exhibit. Appropriately titled, Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots, it featured a gigantic double-sided wall on which hung dozens of dried grasses. The surprising element wasn’t the plants, though. Rather, it was the enormous carrot-shaped roots that extended below them in long, wheat-colored coils.

A Passion For Soil

The exhibit is a collaboration between Dr. Jerry Glover, Agricultural Ecologist and Emerging Explorer at National Geographic, and photographer Jim Richardson, both of whom share a passion for soil. Well aware that agriculture is the bedrock of our society, they believe it also poses a threat to our ecosystems and biodiversity. Together, they are working to find more sustainable agricultural practices for the global community to adopt.

IMG_5079The Secret Life of Roots was designed to teach people all about soil, the need for its conservation, and the vital role it plays in our health and that of our planet. The perennial grasses were chosen to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between plants and soil and to showcase their deep-rooted and drought-tolerant root systems. Not only are grasses adept at nutrient cycling and water management, they also prevent erosion, which keeps our ecosystems healthy. 

All told, the exhibit features a few dozen herbaceous plants grown and excavated by Glover at the Kansas Land Institute. Included among them are gigantic grass specimens indigenous to North America’s disappearing grasslands. Shown in their entirety, these plants provide an astonishing glimpse into the secret life of roots underground. Richardson’s photos, featuring close-up views of other prairie grasses, encircle the exhibit.

Plumbing the Depths

According to Glover, roots are the plumbing that makes our ecosystem work, allowing water and nutrients to flow evenly between plants’ leaves and the soil. Most of us are unaware of this hidden role roots play in feeding the soil. Not only do they control erosion, but they also protect microorganisms that depend on the soil for survival. Once people see the complex root systems that support the plants, he says,

“There is nearly always a WOW”

Glover meticulously collected the specimens himself, including mammoth examples of cord grass, Western wheatgrass, Kansas rosinweed and other grassland denizens. Affixed to an artist’s rendering of their natural habitat, their astonishing root systems spill downwards, dried testaments to what lengths plants will go to sustain themselves in water and nutrient-stressed environments.

What’s remarkable is that most of the root systems consist of thick masses of lateral roots, lending them a distinct carrot-like shape. Some extend downward as far as 10 feet; while others have been rolled up and tied together to keep them from brushing the floor.

Back To Our Roots

encyclopedia britannica

South Dakota grassland/encyclopedia britannica

Together with Richardson’s photos, the exhibit paints a clear picture of the strategies grasses have developed over decades to survive; strategies the duo believe could help conventional farming function more like the natural ecosystems they have displaced.

Modern agriculture is heavily dependent on growing annual food crops, which have to be replanted each year.  Glover believes that this practice, which depletes soil of nutrients, is inefficient and non-productive for the future. Perennial grass roots provide important windows into how plants can evolve to balance diverse nutrient, sunlight and water needs to sustain themselves from year-to-year. Speaking to National Geographic, Glover said,

imgres“It’s time to put natural plant communities back in charge of the landscape.”

To hear Jerry Glover talk about his ongoing research into soil and perennial plants, click here. The United States Botanic Garden is located on the grounds of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., at 100 Maryland Ave SW, Washington, DC 20024. The garden is open daily 10:00 am – 5:00 pm.

Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots is on display in the East Gallery from February 21 to October 13, 2015.


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