Know the Roots to Grow the Plant

Sedges have edges, Rushes are round, 
Grasses have nodes from the top to the ground.

Gardeners spend countless hours identifying plants so that we know how they grow, where to plant them and what problems to expect. Sometimes I spend countless more hours re-identifying a plant because I’ve planted it on a whim and promptly forgotten about it forever.

It should be no surprise that a few rhymes have been created to help us remember the subtle differences between similar species. Sometimes clever gardeners modify these rhymes and make them even more memorable.

Sedges have edges, Rushes are round, 
Grasses have joints, If the cops aren't around.

The Master Gardeners that volunteer as North Carolina plant photographers are instructed to capture every possible identifying mark on a plant to help other gardeners in this endless effort.

“Photograph the underside of the leaf,” they tell us. “Get photographs of leaf attachment, leaf arrangement, and even photographs of how horrible the plant looks in the fall or winter to help others plan something else to plant. Find plants in the snow or with ice, bright colors, or simply the unblooming bush that looks dead to show what it looks like in the winter so homeowners know to plant other things along with it.” It’s all about the plant.

I happen to find the roots of these plants equally interesting. It’s the root that feeds the plant, anchors it in the soil and provides support for the stem, or not. Sometimes it’s the root that we eat. It’s the root that gives a plant its leaf and flower characteristics, and the root that allows the plant to propagate. To understand how a plant supports and expands itself is to know how that plant thrives.

Dicots and Monocots are the roots to know in the world of grow. Dicots have a taproot system that reaches deep into the earth, while monocots have fibrous root systems closer to the surface that form a dense network of roots.

DICOTS

Let’s consider the lowly dandelion, a common example of a plant with a taproot.

A dandelion root can grow as deep as 5 feet (1.5 meters). If only I had a dollar for every dandelion I’ve pulled with the expectation that it would be gone forever. But pulling on a taproot usually causes it to break off and the plant regrows from whatever root remains. All it takes is a mere 2 millimeters of remaining root to grow a new flower.

A single flower produces between 125 and 300 seeds that scatter wildly in the breeze – all year. They can reproduce without sunlight, and the flowers pollinate themselves so that it only takes one isolated dandelion to spread itself all over your lawn.

For all their reproductive might, however, taproot plants prefer to stay put. It’s the dicot plant that will decide it is quite happy where it is, whether you agree or not. Although it’s somewhat easier if you move them when they’re young and the root is still tender, success is never guaranteed – as my own experience will confirm.

Commercial nurseries will undercut a dicot tree early in its life so that the taproot is severed. This causes the root to lose its taproot characteristic and develop a fibrous root system, which increases the success of transplanting. I can’t say how this must affect their natural tendencies though.

Fun Fact: The most deep-seated taproot ever recorded was found on a wild fig tree in Echo Caves, near Ohrigstad, Transvaal, South Africa. It measured almost 400 feet deep.

MONOCOTS

Monocots form a dense, fibrous network of roots that remain closer to the soil surface. They grow in clumps, sending out creeping shoots called runners or rhizomes, which makes them excellent at preventing soil erosion.

Monocots primarily grow on land, but also in rivers, lakes, and ponds, mostly rooted to the bottom, but sometimes free-floating. They’ll take up residence near the seashore; a few are marine plants rooted in shallow areas in the ocean. Their roots will even survive on top of the soil’s surface where they extract moisture from the air to survive.

The largest family of monocots are the orchids which have over 20,000 species followed by grasses with 10,000 species. Scientists believe monocots evolved as early as 140 million years ago.

Palm trees, bamboo, irises, and yuccas have monocot root systems and it’s the monocot plants that provide human and animal food staples like wheat, corn, barley, rice, bananas, sugarcane and pineapples. Monocots make up the most species grown in agriculture in terms of the amount of biomass produced.

TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE:
Are pine trees dicots or monocots?

ANSWER: Pines are neither dicots nor monocots, they are conifers. Only flowering plants are considered dicot or monocot plants, although some of these flowers are not easily discernible.

Other examples of conifers include cedars, Douglas firs, cypresses, firs, junipers, kauri, larches, hemlocks, redwoods, spruces, and yews.

Leaves: Parallel Vs. Branching Veins

Monocots and dicots form different leaves: monocot leaves are characterized by their parallel veins, while dicots form “branching veins.”

A monocot leaf from the native garden next door.

Flowers: how many flower petals does your plant have?

The last distinct difference between monocots and dicots are their flowers. Monocot flowers form in threes and dicot flowers occur in groups of four or five.

The image above shows the grass lily Ornithogalum umbellatum with its flower parts in multiples of three, characteristic of monocots.
(Courtesy: biologydictionary.net)
A five-leaf dicot flower from the native garden.

Know Your Roots

If people were Dicots, they would be happy living in the same hometown for all of life. You could attempt to expand their horizon while they were still young, tender and impressionable, but they are really quite happy in one place with roots that run deep.

Life might knock them down, or threaten to uproot them, but they will easily re-establish themselves from the smallest of roots that remain. And despite their limited mobility, they’ll spread their seeds of influence far and wide – in their community and beyond.

A Monocot would be a social butterfly willing to adventure far beyond their center of origin. They can live anywhere conditions allow. In fact, some monocots live in places the rest of us would consider uninhabitable. They have become the epitome of adaptable and can pull their resources right out of thin air. Monocots sustain us, inspire us, and, probably, frustrate us.

This would have been the end of the story had I not discovered the amazing root system of the aspen tree.

A single aspen tree is a small part of a larger organism where the main life force is underground in the extensive root system.

This is possible because of root suckers which emerge from the soil around the base of the trunk and grow into new trees, forming a ‘stand’ of closely growing aspens. The oldest known aspen clone stand has lived more than 80,000 years on Utah’s Fishlake National Forest; over 100 acres in size and weighing more than 14 million pounds.

The aspen reproduces both by seeds and by root sprouts, though few aspen seedlings survive in nature due to the short time a seed is viable.

Root sprouting is more successful and results in many genetically identical trees, or a “clone”. All the trees in a clone have identical characteristics and share a root structure. However, members of a clone can be distinguished from those of a neighboring clone by a variety of traits, such as leaf shape and size, bark character, branching habit, resistance to disease and air pollution, and autumn leaf color.

Aspen groves may not persist unless periodically disturbed by an event that rejuvenates the groves. They are less susceptible to fire than other trees, but benefit greatly from a fire that encourages growth.

If you were to find a sunny spot to listen to these trees, you would hear them whisper to one another. The unique design of the aspen leaf stem and round leaves tremble, or quake, in the slightest breeze – like thousands of fluttering butterfly wings.

The soft whispering rustle of a quaking aspen is said to be unlike the sound of any other tree in the forest.

Courtesy: nationalforests.org

If people are like dicots and monocots, where our roots define our personal characteristics, humanity may well be described by the aspen tree stand.

However marvelously individual, we are a small part of the larger whole. Within the forest, our shared root structure makes us strong, and our unified whisper is unlike any other sound on earth. That’s not to say there won’t be disturbances along the way, but they only make us stronger.

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