Roots. The word has so many fundamental connotations: ground, foundation, basis, cause, origin, source. Roots are plants’ way of being grounded in space, at a place, but all life is rooted in time, through its ancestors. So roots run deep, and they touch us deeply.
Every living thing has roots, its temporal roots. All species on earth evolved from ancestral species, and tracing out these lineages is important: where does it belong on earth’s great tree (or bush) of life, which organisms are its nearest relatives? Scientists are interested in these ancestral roots, scrutinizing a variety of traces, especially genomes, to determine lineages. But most humans are more interested in our human lineage and especially our own particular lineages, our familial and cultural roots. Some people are so obsessed with their family roots that they spend countless hours in genealogical research; their particular lineage forms part of their identity (or even, in extreme cases, nearly all of it). Others have a more casual or even a blasé attitude. Still, we are all rooted in our ancestors; they are our lifeline to the past, and without them we wouldn’t exist.
But temporal roots are only a metaphor for other kinds of roots, the ones belonging not to animals but to vascular plants: these plants are the ones which are literally rooted (non-vascular plants such as lichens and mosses lack proper roots but may have rhizoids anchoring them to a substrate). Their roots are spatial, not temporal. After an amateur’s brief foray into biology and natural history, I’d like to explore the roots of plants as a photographic subject, however unpromising it may seem to some. Once again my main guide is Peter H. Raven, Ray F. Evert, Susan E. Eichhorn, Biology of Plants, 7e (W. H. Freeman, 2005), kindly loaned to me by John Knox along with some other material on mycorrhizal fungi, plus the Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikepedia. Errors doubtless remain, but they are mine alone. My partner in crime, Pete Guaron, will follow later with a different kind of exploration—and with more images.
Roots have an ancient evolutionary history, with fossil records (infilled voids where roots rotted after death) going back at least 430 MYA [million years ago]. They are probably modifications of rhizomes, which are themselves modified horizontal stems. Botanists distinguish between monocotyledons or monocots and dicotyledons or dicots, fancy terms for flowering plants that have a single seed leaf (the earliest to appear from the seed) and those that have two such leaves. The former are such as grasses, lilies and palms; the latter includes all else, a much larger group. Not surprisingly, monocots and dicots typically have different kinds of root systems. Monocots have many independent roots, a mat of usually fine branches reaching into the ground—think sod. Dicots usually have a different root structure, with a main root or taproot and various lateral roots—think trees.
There are four main functions of roots:
A lot goes on underground that we cannot see. Roots dive deeply into the soil, but also spread extensively beyond the scope of above-ground foliage. The lateral spread is usually greater than the crown’s extent. Sometimes the numbers are mind-boggling. The roots of a four-month-old rye plant, e.g., have a surface area of something like 640 square meters, about 130 times the surface area of the four-foot shoot. And this in only six liters of soil! Some roots don’t need to go deep, because they can find all the water and nutrients they need near the surface; spruces, beeches and poplars, e.g., rarely have deep taproots and are more easily uprooted by wind.
But it’s quite different for desert plants, which must search more deeply for moisture. The record seems to be held by a mesquite that was unearthed in an Arizona open pit mine: its roots extended over 53 meters into the ground! And tamarix and acacia roots unearthed in digging the Suez Canal were over 30 meters deep. Survival in desiccated places depends on deep roots.
In addition to all the extensive root growth, there’s a lot of underground communication with and through structures called mycorrhizal fungi, which increase nutrient access, connect with soil microbes and other plants, and shape whole ecosystems. Though still mysterious, a lot has been learned in this area in recent decades, and it shows that the life of roots is rather more complicated—and interesting—than we have hitherto imagined.
Most roots are underground, but there are some kinds above ground. Buttresses, for example, prop up trees especially where the soil is saturated and root systems are shallow (think tropical rain forests). Mangroves living in salt water often have “knees” or air roots that grow against gravity (unlike usual roots) to enable the trees to absorb oxygen from the air.
Then there are so-called adventitious or aerial roots, extending from such vines as ivy, that enable them to cling tightly to trees or walls; this image is of poison ivy.
There are also arboreal roots, where trees bore into mats of epiphytes on their branches, and haustorial roots of parasitic plants such as mistletoe that absorb water and nutrients from another plant. Many are the ways of roots.
Photographers tend to ignore roots because they’re not flashy like stems and leaves and flowers. They mostly lack the appealing shapes and colors of above-ground parts. Let’s face it: roots are drab, so if they are to have any photographic interest it won’t be color. One feature I find fascinating is their complex structure, the endless twisting and branching that produces abstract non-repetitive patterns. In fact, roots can provide many opportunities for imaginative togs, not least in winter when vegetation dies down.
The first image below is of vines, not roots, but their complex pattern partially suggests what life underground might look like, as in the second image.
Roots exposed by erosion or horticulture are often interesting. Riverbanks are ideal locations, but they can also be found by the side of roads or other human excavations. The ways in which they anchor leaning trees is often made evident along streams.
Exposed roots can beautify riverbanks, but sometimes they just look naked.
Roots of large trees in cemeteries provide occasion for reflection on the transience and interconnectivity of life. Where are all those roots going?
Sometimes roots snake along the surface and provide interesting patterns. I remember being impressed decades ago by large surface roots of some tropical trees in the Daintree Forest in Australia that resemble giant pipes extending hundreds of feet; perhaps I instinctively saw them as enormous snakes? Unfortunately I haven’t been able to access any images; they reside in memory but not in my hard drive. Still I do have images of exposed surface roots in the temperate forest around me, perhaps uncovered by erosion or foot traffic.
Sometimes roots massively project above ground, hinting of interesting underground architecture.
Sometimes they hug rocks.
Sometimes they cascade down hillsides.
Let me close with a few suggestions for photographers who might become interested in roots:
I wish I had images to illustrate all these cases, but failing that I leave it to you, gentle reader. Root around. You’ll find unexpected pleasures.
Never miss a post
Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.