As garden educators, we know all the showy plants that make your jaws drop in wonder. “Come look at the spike-covered silk floss tree!” “Have you seen the neon green blooms on the jade vine?” We love introducing you to the marvelous and immediately apparent beauty of these plants.

But this year, we’re looking at plants from a whole new perspective: upside down! Well, maybe more like, underground, as our programs will focus on structures we typically do not see — roots. Our 2020-21 theme is Roots: Power of the Unseen, and we will explore these overlooked structures, and discover their hidden power. We’ll set our sights skyward to observe aerial roots that absorb nutrients from the air instead of the soil. We’ll wet our feet with shoreline roots essential to marine life, and then moisten our palates with roots that nourish us. In between our righteously rooty adventures, we’ll expand on our theme to reveal other unseen natural workings, and give you peek behind the scenes at the work that goes into maintaining our beloved Garden.  

To kick things off, let’s start with a rudimentary, or shall we say, ROOTimentary primer on roots and their many functions in their ecosystems.  

Plants keep dirt from washing away

Roots not only keep plants in place, they secure soil, too. Roots grab onto soil to prevent erosion, and consequently, keep nutrients from flushing out of the system. Like our own bodies, soil needs nutrients in order to sustain life. Erosion also contributes to water pollution and the clogging of waterways, which can kill fish populations.   

Roots as wells sure are swell

If you’ve experienced Southwest Florida during the summer, you know how quickly a downpour can turn into a flood. Plants, and more specifically, roots, are natures flood prevention systemRoot growth carves out underground passages to give water a place to seep. The deeper the root system, the more water is sucked up, just like a well. So, if your carpentry skills aren’t on par with Noah’s, consider planting trees to survive the next major flood.  

From deep growth to deep fried

At times, plants create extra sugar or starch during photosynthesis. Root crops do not have a lot of leafy growth above ground, so they send extra nutrients to their enlarged, often bulbous roots. These structures act as storage for the plants and food for us. Ironic that a plant’s nutrient pantry is exactly what lands it in our own pantries! The part of the carrot that we traditionally eat is a modified root where the plant stores extra sugarwhich is why itsweet. Interestingly, America’s favorite fried root, the potato, is not actually a root at all. Botanically speaking, potatoes are tubers, or underground stems. Luckily, this classification means potatoes still work well with our annual themeand we will feel no guilt indulging in extra “hands-on learning” with Fogg Café fries.  

Roots work for a better future

Everyone knows that trees capture carbon, one of the greenhouse gases responsible for our warming planet. But did you know it’s the roots that are responsible for sending carbon into the soil? Carbon is “inhaled” by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon then moves down the plant and is transferred through the roots into the soil, which acts as a basement for carbon storage. This is known as carbon sequestration, a process that is an important part of a multi-solution approach to climate change. 

Colloquially, we use the word root to describe the base or beginning of something. In nature, roots are exactly that: the basis for life! So next time you sit down for a vegetable-packed dinner or explore the outdoors, take a minute to reflect on the unseen, yet substantial work of roots. Your appreciation for them might just grow.  

This blog is part of this year’s Roots: Power of the Unseen  theme, which celebrates the complex world beneath our feet and seeks to inspire a new appreciation for the unnoticed, yet vital parts of our ecosystem.   

About the Author

Emily Kless is an Educator II for Naples Botanical Garden. Emily is always excited by the opportunity to learn. Outside of the Garden, you can find Emily and her service dog, Clementine, hiking the region’s various trails (and sometimes forging their own) to admire native plants and birds.

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