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

Secret Life of Roots. Cover

This weekend I visited Washington, D.C.’s United States Botanic Garden and came across an unusual exhibit. Appropriately titled, Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots, it featured a gigantic double-sided wall on which were suspended dozens of dried prairie grasses. The surprising element wasn’t the plants, though. Rather, it was the enormous carrot-shaped roots that hung down below them in long, densely woven, wheat-colored coils.

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 also see it as a threat to our fragile 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 the health of our society and planet as a whole. The perennial grass roots were chosen to show the symbiotic relationship between plants and soil and to depict their underground world. Not only are grasses adept at regulating processes like nutrient cycling and water management, they are experts at anchoring themselves in the ground (thus controlling erosion) and protecting ecosystem health.

The double-wall features a few dozen herbaceous plants grown and excavated by Glover at the Kansas Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. It includes gigantic grass specimens indigenous to North America’s disappearing grasslands. Together with their enormous fibrous roots, the plants provide an astounding picture of the secret life of roots underground. Richardson’s photos, featuring close-up views of the root structures of other prairie grasses, encircle the exhibit.

According to Glover, although plants are a primary source of energy for the soil, their roots are the plumbing that makes the whole ecosystem work, allowing water and other nutrients to flow evenly between plants’ leaves and the ground. Most of us are unaware of this hidden role roots play in feeding the soil, controlling erosion and protecting the many microorganisms that depend on it 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 how far underground the plants will go to sustain themselves in water and nutrient-stressed environments.

Most of the root systems are composed of masses of thin lateral roots, which give the structures distinct carrot-like shapes. Some extend downward as far as 10 feet; while others are so long they’ve been rolled up and tied to keep them from sweeping the floor.

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 day 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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