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1,000 archived images reveal how root systems of plants fuel soil health

A cutaway of a seedling growing in dirt.
A cutaway of a seedling growing in dirt. (iStock)

What’s in a plant? Humans admire them, eat them and rely on them for oxygen release, carbon sequestration, animal habitat and more. But a plant is more than meets the eye. Beneath the soil, its root system can extend inches or even feet, spidering into the earth and fueling soil health.

An archival collection of over 1,000 images of root systems reveals the hidden world of plants. It’s the work of Austrian botanist Lore Kutschera and other researchers at the Plant Sociological Institute in Austria. Over the course of 40 years, they collaborated on an enormous “root atlas” that maps the underground trajectories of common European plants, from Acanthosicyos horridus, a melon, to zygophyllum, flowering plants. The images are online thanks to Wageningen University & Research, a Dutch university known for its agricultural programs.

They show the surprising extent of the roots of plants such as Carlina acaulis, also known as the dwarf carline thistle. The seemingly small plant nestles close to the ground. But underneath, its roots can go as deep as four feet.

Root systems allow plants to gather the water and minerals they use to grow. As the root system grows, it creates more and more pathways that allow water to get into the deep subsoil, and fostering the growth of microbes that benefit other life. Strong root systems can prevent erosion, protecting the land on which they grow. And the structures allow the soil to capture carbon.

The fastidious drawings, which were created during a laborious system of digging up and documenting the intricate systems, are informative. But they’re also art in their own right, honoring the beauty of a part of plants most never give that much thought.

The collection was shared on Twitter by Jordan Fink of Build Soil, an initiative that encourages people to plant chestnut trees as part of an attempt to rebuild carbon stores and repair the climate.

“This is why I say that most of your energy should be on soil building because that’s most of the plant,” Fink wrote. “Focus on soil and the plants can grow themselves.” View the drawings online at bit.ly/RootAtlas.

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