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Shoots to Roots

From Shoots to Roots: revealing the above and below ground structure of meadow plants 

By Vicky Bowskill and Irina Tatarenko

 

 

Botanical art is a tradition that dates back generations. A good field sketchbook was the mainstay of botanists before we all had a digital camera in our pockets. Even so, a sketch can still be helpful alongside a digital snap, because subtle features necessary for identification can be missed by a camera. And it can be hard to untangle a rambling plant in a species-rich setting like a floodplain meadow. But you can’t easily photograph what’s going on beneath the soil.

In times past, the illustrations of traveling botanists would have been the only way most people would have been able to see plants from beyond their own area. In more recent years, whilst we've become much more mobile as a population, botanical knowledge has declined, with many school children unable to name even common plants.

There are many good reference books for budding botanists to make use of, along with identification apps that are now pretty good, and accessible training courses from organisations like the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI). But that's just for the parts you can see. What about what’s going on below ground? Many of us now know about the importance of our soils for food production, carbon storage and flood alleviation. And one of the most important things for soil health is having a range of plant species with diverse root systems to create a well-structured and healthy soil.

Meadows are communities of perennial herbaceous plants. Their assemblage is driven by the competing and complementary strategies of species, and the physical space-sharing occurs both above and below ground. Differences in plant height and spread, along with the size and shape of leaves ensures effective access to light for a wide variety of species. These aboveground parts are seasonal and short-lived, so the long life of meadow species (which can be 10-70 years) relies on their below ground organs. The unseen diversity in the spread of the rhizomes and stolons, along with the root depth and intensity of branching, allows efficient access to water and nutrients. Plant roots play a key role in the widespread storage of organic carbon in the soil. This rooting diversity also supports a complex community of soil microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) and invertebrates like earthworms, ants and nematodes which build the soil through their activities.

Understanding and appreciation of the complexity of meadows can be enhanced by visualisation of the community structure. The aboveground parts of meadow plants have been well described and illustrated in botanical art and literature over the years. But information about below ground plant structures remains scarce, and good illustrations are rarer still.

To bring this subterranean world to life, this diagram of a floodplain meadow community has been created from a variety of visual and text materials and field observations. The artistic digital drawings by Vicky Bowskill have been guided by the extensive literature search and professional expertise of Dr Irina Tatarenko. Research into the changing morphology of roots throughout the lifecycle of plants has been carried out by groups of devoted botanists in the UK and Russia. This diagram presents a compilation of that research, sourced from the publications listed here under References.

Suggested citation:

Bowskill V. and Tatarenko I. (2021). From Shoots to Roots: revealing the above and below ground structure of meadow plants. Floodplain Meadows Partnership.

Copyright:

Creative Commons Attribution - Non Commercial - ShareAlike 2.0 Licence

© The Open University

If you want a high res version of this for use in presentations, please get in touch

Floodplain-Meadows-Project@open.ac.uk 

References:

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