When the world seems to be going by at a dizzying pace, and the insects are zooming, and the butterflies are flitting, and the birds are swooping, I often stop and think of the plants, rooted so tightly and strongly to the earth below me. It's a comforting thought.
And it's a cheery thought too. The roots of native plants come in a variety of shades, some are bright white, others are cream colored, grey, yellow, or tan, sometimes even tinged with purple. When thinking of roots, I don't just have to imagine brown, brown, brown, but a palette of natural, earthy shades.
Native plants are known for their complicated root structures, and in some cases, very deep root structures. It's these deep roots that allow the prairie to weather the July heat. The roots extend down deep into the earth to tap into the groundwater far below. So while the sun and wind are drying out the upper layer of soil, the native plant roots remain hydrated, keeping the entire plant lush and green.
There are a few species of native plants which are renowned for their deep root structure. Compass plant (Silphium lacinatum) and cylindrical blazing star (Liatris cylindracea), both native to Northwest Indiana, have roots that extend downward to twenty feet deep. Many prairie plants have roots that grow to ten feet. Even the common one foot tall black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), has roots that grow four feet deep! That's a big difference from the Kentucky bluegrass in many of our lawns that grows to a depth of only six inches.
Prairie plants put roughly two thirds of their plant growth underground in the form of roots. These roots have made prairie soil well-known for being some of the richest soil in the world. Each year, as the native plants begin to die back, their roots die too. For annuals, the entire root system dies. Even perennial plants, which come back year after year, have a portion of their roots that die back in the winter, and then regrow in the spring. As the dead roots begin to break down, they are decomposing and becoming soil, but not just any soil. They are becoming nutrient-rich, productive soil.
We are all well-aware that roots have the ability to hold soil in place and trap water from running off. Here at Kankakee Sands, where the prairie winds are strong, the fine sandy soil is held in place and does not blow, thanks to the intricately woven roots of the prairie plants.
And water is held in place as well. Prairie roots create a path for rain and dew to drain downward, into the soil, recharging groundwater and aquifers, rather than running off into ditches and potentially causing flooding downstream. The rich soil created by the decomposition of the prairie roots also holds more water than sterile soils, and in turn, increases the amount of water in the ground for a healthy soil structure.
Interested in incorporating native plants into your landscaping or gardens in an effort to improve soil quality and water retention while enjoying a low maintenance lush green garden? Why not plant a flower and root garden next year, incorporating many of the deeply rooted native plants as well as your favorite native varieties? To find out where to purchase native plants, there is a new website called Grow Native, which lists the growers of Native Plants in Indiana. Each year our local Friends of the Sands volunteer group in Newton County grows plants and makes them available to the public in May.
Roots, roots. There is so much more to a prairie plant than what meets the eye. In that way, prairie plants are a lot like people. They have a beauty and a purpose held just beyond what the eye can see. Roots.
The Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands is an 8,300-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands.