Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Root of the Matter

Blogging at Night Writers on Roots, gardening topics with a touch of fantasy.

7/13/13 Update: As Night Writers is in Hiatus, I've posted the article here:

Some novels have characters who cannot survive sunlight, or prefer to live in caves to hunt the Earth's treasure or to explore the her dark recesses. Of all the great fantasy, adventure or suspense characters, none are as successful in these environs as roots.

When plants first took to earth from their sea habitat, roots were mere anchors. Certainly serving as a support remained an important task. Roots kept early plants in place despite the action of wind or the waves of water. Moss, one of these primitive plants, still survives. Its roots don't absorb moisture, so the parts above ground must fulfill that task.

Through a few million years of design and development, some plants grew root tips. These cells outgrew the tough root covering most of the long tendrils, always growing a fraction of inch ahead of that impervious covering. They understood support in a different meaning from anchor. The tips absorbed and distributed the moisture needed for the plant. Nearly all plants today use this unique growth pattern, but ancient roots still weren't satisfied.

Even more generations later, some roots developed another innovation: root hairs. With this advance roots became miners. Now cells tunnel and excavate through soil using the hydraulic process of osmosis to move the treasures they find to the demanding horde of manufacturing cells living above ground. The root cells seek out water, oxygen, and the chemicals of life in the sustained warmth and dark of the underground. They either find moisture or die. When a root strand fails, new roots emerge from other roots, from underground stems, and in certain cases even leaves. They travel off to explore in new directions.

Growing roots release carbon dioxide into the soil. This carbon dioxide mixes with available moisture to produce an acid that dissolves soil molecules, even rock, freeing useful elements need to produce food. Root tips also release hydrogen, which exchanges place with nitrogen, potassium and calcium in soil molecules, allowing the desired minerals easy entry into the root's vascular system. However, the denizens of the dark realm cannot make food like the upper echelon, sun-worshiping cells found in green leaves and stems.

These basement trollers often send so many raw materials upstairs, that food manufacture far exceeds the community's needs. The top story executives, rather than waste their production, send food back to the roots. There, a long time ago, the clever root cells developed another strategy--storage units for surplus food in the form of bulbs, rhizomes and tubers. These inventive cells still do more. Like in some apocalyptic novel, when climate changes make living upstairs tough, these inventive prospectors hunker down to wait the right time to send new shafts into the light of day.

Similar to many other underclass citizens, the mass of tangled roots below ground far exceeds the total of leaves and stems privileged to exist in the light. They often seek depths greatly exceeding the plant's height. Roots form the plant's structural foundation, they seek out the raw materials of life, can change the soil around themselves, and they store supplies for future needs. What greater heroic effort could any story character make?

Much of my knowledge about gardening comes from books. To learn more about how plants work, I recommend finding a copy of The How and Why of Better Gardening by Laurence Manning, an inspirational source for understanding plants.

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