• October 15, 2015

Digging Deep Reveals the Intricate World of Roots

Becky Harlan

If you’ve ever driven past wild prairie grasses swaying in the Kansas breeze and felt a wave of appreciation for America’s heartland, you should know that those visible grasses are just the tip of the iceberg.

“We’re pretty blind to what’s going on beneath the soil,” says photographer Jim Richardson, who became well acquainted with the world of dirt while working on “Our Good Earth,” a 2008 National Geographic magazine story.

Dr. Jerry Glover waters wheat in a soil pit at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas
Dr. Jerry Glover works in a soil pit at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. On the left, the deeper roots of wheatgrass are displayed, while the more shallow roots of wheat are visible on the right.

The bulk of a prairie grass plant, it turns out, exists out of sight, with anywhere from eight to fourteen feet of roots extending down into the earth. Why should we care? Besides being impressively large, these hidden root balls accomplish a lot—storing carbon, nourishing soil, increasing bioproductivity, and preventing erosion.

Unfortunately, these productive, perennial grasses (which live year round) are more rare than they once were.

Vertical panorama of a compass plant and its long root structure
Compass Plant

“When [you] say the American Midwest is a breadbasket, essentially what you mean is that you have taken out the prairie grasses. You went out with Willa Cather and the plow that broke the plains, plowed up the grassland, and started planting annual grasses like wheat, sorghum, corn, any of the big grains that supply most of our calories,” says Richardson.

A challenge in raising the profile of this tallgrass ecosystem is that so much of it is underground and therefore difficult to visualize. Enter photography.

Vertical panorama of a Missouri Goldenrod grass plant and its long root structure
Missouri Goldenrod

Richardson wanted to reveal these roots to the world, highlighting not only their productive attributes but also their surprising scale and intricacy. Logistically speaking, he had to get creative, because if you were to try and dig up the roots of switchgrass from any old prairie, you would destroy them in the process.

“You can’t get them out of the ground. You’d be going down ten feet and trying to excavate all around them to get them out. It just wouldn’t work,” he says.

So Richardson collaborated with Dr. Jerry Glover, an agroecologist and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who developed a method of growing tallgrasses in “root-tubes” (made from PVC pipes) while he was working at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. It takes a year or two to grow the plants. When they’re ready, the tube is split and, after a good wash, the roots come out intact and ready for their close up.

An agricultural ecologist stands next to a large root tangle he grew, which is made of three grasses and suspended in the air
Dr. Jerry Glover stands next to a 14-foot tangle of Indian grass, compass plant, and big bluestem grass that he grew. He welded together two 55-gallon drums, laced the inside with a wire frame, filled the tall container with soil and seed, and then watered and waited. Three years later, he cut open the barrels and laid bare a giant’s bouquet of native prairie plants.

Then came the second hurdle: how to capture the scale and the texture of these roots at the same time. Remember, some of these roots are twice as tall as an NBA basketball player.

detail of the dense root ball of Indian root grass that reached 10 feet into the earth
Detail of Indian grass roots, which reached 10 feet into the earth.

“[Glover] basically brought the roots over to the gallery here, rolled them out on the floor, and said, ‘How can we photograph this?’” says Richardson.

He describes their solution as being similar to that of a flatbed scanner. They put a long piece of plexiglass on a platform and laid the roots out. Then they put a camera up above the plant on a ladder so that they could look straight down on the roots. Starting at the top, they photographed an approximately 12” x 18” section of the plant, then moved it 12 inches and photographed another section, working their way down the plant as the camera stayed still.

They then took those photos (usually between eight and fourteen per plant) and stitched them together into a super high-resolution image, like a vertical panorama. The main problem now, he says, “is finding walls high enough for the print job.”

Vertical panorama of a wheatgrass plant and its long root structure

Richardson has a well-known, one-liner piece of advice about photography: “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” I found it funny that he’s become so invested in a story about roots and soil, something that at first glance seems kind of boring. So I asked him about it. He explained: “What I mean is that, as a photographer, you need to do the work of discovery … Do the grunt work of research to find gems in unsung places. The worth of the photograph depends on the intrinsic value of what is being seen.”

Interested in how perennial grains might be developed to produce more food? Read on, here.

See more of Jim Richardson’s photographs of soil (which prove that soil is actually really interesting) here.

Hear Jim talk about “standing in front of interesting stuff” in this interview on Proof.

Editor’s Note: The last image in the post is wheatgrass, not switchgrass as it was originally identified in the caption. This post has been updated to fix the error.

There are 49 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Charlotte OBrien
    August 30, 2016

    I have read the interesting reports of the amount of carbon sequestered under switchgrass plants – work done by the USDA. Pointing out numerically how much this type of root system is capable of sequestering carbon at deep levels would make the photos even more pertinent.

  2. John s
    August 5, 2016

    If these are available to purchase I would love to display them at my university I attend so myself and my fellow students can enjoy and appreciate the beauty in our kansas lands. Please email me if I can purchase.

  3. Meagan Keeefe
    July 30, 2016

    This was an awesome article and amazing photos! Like several other comments, I would also be interested in purchasing some of these prints for educational programs at our park. If they would every become available, please let me know.

  4. Kathy Swenson
    June 17, 2016

    Are these prints available for purchase? We are developing an educational program and I’d love to print the photos life size to allow people to measure their height against the root lengths. Good way to start a discussion about how one can be as “tall” as Little Blue Stem roots and how to incorporate the plant in our landscape.

    • Becky Harlan
      June 20, 2016

      Kathy, I’ll pass your question along to Jim. Thanks!

  5. Mary Alice
    January 4, 2016

    Wonderful and impressive displays!

  6. Cathy Testa
    November 6, 2015

    Thank you for sharing your story and photography on roots. I hold workshops on container gardening and discuss the roots which go unseen. I especially like your comment about “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” The photos and story are wonderful.

  7. Jerry Glover
    November 5, 2015

    In reply to Jay, you are correct. That is a photo of wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium), which I excavated roughly 18 months after it was planted.

    In reply to John G., annual plants, whether wild or domesticated like our wheat and soy crops, are generally less deeply rooted than wild and domesticated perennials. In other words, the rooting depths of annual vs perennial plants is, in general, not due to changes made by plant breeders. Some annual plants like corn and sorghum have quite long roots but, of course, they are only alive for relatively short periods of time (months not years like perennials). The fact that perennial plants typically intercept more sunlight and have greater access to nutrients and water deep in the soil actually enables them to produce more biomass, above- and below-ground, than annual plants (in general). Over 80% of North America’s native flora are perennial and for very good reasons. Perennials intercept a lot of sunlight, nutrients and water and build healthy soils relative to most annual plants.

  8. Tom B
    November 5, 2015

    Jay, the last photograph is a Wheatgrass species, not Switch grass.

  9. Jay
    November 5, 2015

    Would someone be able to confirm or deny the identity of the last plant? It looks like a wheatgrass, but the caption is Switchgrass.

    • Becky Harlan
      November 5, 2015

      Thanks for catching this error, Jay! And for confirming it, Jerry. We will correct the caption in the post.

  10. Denise S.
    November 3, 2015

    I enjoyed this article and photos, especially the Compass Plant. Thank you. I wonder if folks or organizations would be interested in some of these photos as posters or banners. I could see the posters hanging along tall stairwells at not-for profits or educational institutions.

  11. MaryAnn
    November 1, 2015

    Very interesting – more people should know about this

  12. JoAnn Collins
    October 30, 2015

    I have been preaching about prairie roots to students for several years! This is AMAZING! Are these pictures going to be available for purchase?

  13. Greg S
    October 30, 2015

    As a person who promotes using native plants in the Conservation Reserve Program (mostly crop ground with drainage tile underneath), I find that producers hesitate to use natives because of their deep root system. I have not seen first hand that native plants seek out tile and plug them, but that perception is out there and stops people from planting natives. I wish there was a study like this with perforated drainage tile buried under a native grass and forb planting.

  14. mohammad
    October 29, 2015

    Thanks, very amazing. I was surprised as I had never seen such a roots to beneath of soil of the term. Thank you clever photographer

  15. Peg Furshong
    October 28, 2015

    This is a great article – perhaps a comparison of roots as it relates to conventional corn and soybeans vs. the native prairie plant root systems and one would quickly see why the corn belt is truly a desert of dirt and lacks the rich soil that native prairie plants produce.

  16. Kathleen Hurty
    October 27, 2015

    Stunning discoveries, Jim. And amazing photographs!

  17. Thomas Harper
    October 26, 2015

    we eat WEEDS!

  18. John G
    October 26, 2015

    Dr. Glover, thank you for the more in depth explanation. I would imagine that part of the ’cause’ of the shallow root systems of our domesticated crops (corn, wheat, etc) is intentional crossbreeding. A plant has only so much energy to devote to creation of biomass… and in the case of our domesticated crops we want that to be geared towards fruitful yield rather than root. Clearly we need to be mindful of that fact when dealing with soil erosion, moisture retention, etc. As someone else mentioned, mankind probably pretty much created the dust bowl problem.

  19. Jerry Glover
    October 26, 2015

    Happy Int’l Year of Soil and thanks to Jim Richardson for such wonderful images. I grew the plant displays, so will answer a few of the questions about how growing these particular plants in the root tubes may have affected the resulting root structures. Most of the plants in the USBG exhibit are naturally deep-rooted plants. Not all plants would grow well in the 12″ diameter tubes I used; for example plants with many horizontally growing rhizomes. The plants shown in this web article grow very similarly in the root tubes as they do in deep soil. I’ve opened up many prairie soil pits that show their natural growth. Of course, in shallow soil over bedrock, the roots would be restricted to the soil and growth along rock cracks. Much of the prairie region isn’t limited by topsoil depth and the area receives sufficient rainfall for water to percolate deep into the soil. To grow prairie plants that don’t do well in the narrow tubes, I had two 55-gallon drums welded together to make a metal ‘tube’–this process is explained in the article above. I used this method to grow the buffalo gourd that was exhibited in the USBG exhibit. Many roots of plants from the more arid short-grass prairie region often do extend more horizontally since rainfall penetration is more limited to surface layers. Those types of plants would not be well suited to growing in 12″ diameter tubes.

  20. Brian P
    October 26, 2015

    awesome pictures

  21. Julia B.
    October 26, 2015

    Just a perfect idea to show the hidden beauty of grass

  22. Natalie G
    October 26, 2015

    I think that the first photo is pretty indicative of the fact that the roots of the native prairie grasses grow down over six feet deep compared to the 6 to 12 inches of the wheat. The wheat roots will only grow that deep no matter what whereas the native prairie grasses can grow even deeper than 6 to 7 feet. Once again proving that the Dust Bowl was a human-caused catastrophe.

  23. Wendy Hembrow
    October 26, 2015

    Breathtakingly beautiful photographic work and inspiring to me as an artist.

  24. Leanna L.
    October 25, 2015

    How interesting! No wonder it’s so hard to pull prairie grasses out of the garden. This shows another important part of our ecosystem and displays some excellent photography as well.

  25. Michael V
    October 25, 2015

    Truly amazing photos of root systems!! Does make you wonder how the eco system in the plains would be now had we not plowed it up for crops!

  26. Michael Kubara
    October 25, 2015

    Are grass and thistle roots ‘hydrotropic” as some plants are phototropic (growing in the direction of sunlight) or heoliotropic (turnig toward sunlight during the day). There may have been more horizontal growth if moisture was there. But still the “pumping” lift is amazing.

  27. Hugo Marelli
    October 25, 2015

    Excelente articulo. Para conocimiento de todo el mundo.
    Pregunta: relacionaron raices con soil carbon stock. De ser asi me gustaria conocer el informe tecnico.
    Muchas gracias.
    Hugo Marelli

  28. Roger Brown
    October 25, 2015

    In Albertson Hall at Fort Hays (Kansas) State Univ, several displays of root systems of prairie plants have been on display for decades. Always found them fascinating.

  29. Paul Anderson
    October 25, 2015

    The “root tubes” would certainly have affected the growth patterns somewhat. It’s the same method that people use to grow root vegetables for competitions. Look up something like “world’s longest carrot.” The record carrot is about 20 feet long, grown in pvc pipes similar to the roots pictured above.
    So the ideal environment inside these tubes may not approximate real world conditions where roots can spread out and face difficulties like compaction layers and varying soil types and moisture levels. But certainly the old growth prairies did have some impressive root systems under them. The simple fact that you could cut the roots into blocks and build sod houses that would withstand several years of rain and snow testifies to that.

  30. Ian MacFarlane
    October 25, 2015

    A little over a year ago while cleaning my yard I encountered a very shallow but large and typically fine root system under a gravel path which I uncovered washed, dried and sprayed with gold paint before framing it as a work of art.

    I had never considered the delicacy and extent of root systems before that time.

    Jim Richardson’s works are very much the same and while it came as a surprise to me they really shouldn’t have.

    There is something oddly compelling about our relationship with the earth which gratefully more of us know than I suspected.

  31. Rok Williams
    October 25, 2015

    Again my brain, my soul, my perspective on Life— –thanks to your inventiveness and art, are unexpectedly challenged, stretched, and i feel more alive. I am eager to share this with my friends and grandchildren.

  32. Rashid Mukoon
    October 25, 2015

    Very interesting ideas,studies and fotos

  33. rebecca Evermon
    October 25, 2015

    Now I will never look at a plant the same way. I want to see the roots too.. I’m glad he’s so interested. Really beautiful pictures.

  34. Irina R
    October 25, 2015

    I’m just as curious as John G about the way the roots may have adapted to their confinement. Nonetheless, it is amazing what we still don’t know or understand about the world we live in.

  35. Ana B.
    October 25, 2015

    Same as John G. How did the pvc tubes afected the root growth… They surely interferred with the available area for spreading… But nevertheless, very interesting work!

  36. Vassilis GANIATSAS
    October 25, 2015

    Any botanist or plant physiologist to answer the first post by John G? In any case, even as maximum possible growth in ideal conditions of no resistance and maximum impact of gravity, its amazing ! Such a strong will for life !

  37. John G
    October 23, 2015

    It’s hard to tell from the article but was there any thought that growing the plants within the ‘root tubes’ changed their natural growth patterns at all? Did they grow deeper and into a more vertical profile because of being confined? Just curious.

  38. Donna
    October 20, 2015

    Wow! I had no idea!

  39. Julie Dowd
    October 19, 2015

    Saw this exhibit on roots at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington this summer – it was amazing: http://usbg.gov/exposed-secret-life-roots

  40. C
    October 18, 2015

    Thank you for an excellent and important article, shared!

  41. Scott
    October 17, 2015

    Just amazing. As a plant physiologist myself, the fact that roots can be a huge part of a plant’s biomass isn’t new – but to actually seem them visualised like this; just brilliant! Thank-you.

  42. Garion
    October 17, 2015

    Your work is outstanding. It’s reached me here in Nz and it hits like a train, powerful!

  43. Jennie K
    October 16, 2015

    Beautiful Photographs! My favorite is the switchgrass. So interesting to read about the importance of these root systems!

  44. Silas S
    October 16, 2015

    Perhaps I had skipped. Of course it is Jim! How many things of interest there are to assimilate from your accomplishments at National Geographic! For a versatile individual who has produced 25 stories, I guess a lone compliment might not suffice without that three-lettered article “the” right before who you are.

  45. Jim Richardson
    October 15, 2015

    Silas, Thank You! I think that is a compliment. At least I am going to take it that way. Very much appreciated. Jim

  46. Joan Churton
    October 15, 2015

    These are absolutely wonderful. Thank you for doing this story.

  47. Silas S
    October 15, 2015

    Jim is kind of a different person you know. He is not just a photographer, but he is. Thank you Becky.

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