Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Roots (2) (9/18/2016)

Of late I have been fascinated by roots.  I wrote about it earlier in the year, and today I would like to revisit it.  That blog of earlier this year had more to do about how our present is rooted in our past, not bad for a biologist turned amateur psychologist I would think.  In the real world I hear they have remade the TV series called “Roots” and I constantly hear about the genetic testing to see what your roots are, but that is not where I want to go with this post.

Today I am really interested in the real roots, the things that feed plants.  Those are the ones that have fascinated me for a long time, and the interest has grown even stronger.  What has happened that sparked this interest?  Well, for the past 30 years I have wanted to grow bonsai trees.  I have had trees in training since that time or should I say I have had trees that I kept in benign neglect.  I have not managed them probably for the past 10 years, just kept them in their pots and they have not done much.  Finally this year, I somehow figured it was time that I spend some time with them.

My 30 year old Japanese Black Pine, as you can see the trunk is still really small.  The tree had almost died this spring, I root pruned it pretty severely and planted it in a new pot.  It seems to be doing well.  I wonder what next year will bring.
Well the plants were root bound.  It was surprising that the plants were still alive.  Moreover, it was not surprising that they had hardly grown and still looked like seedling after the 30 years.  After untangling the roots, I cut them some and repotted them in what I thought was a very loose soil mix and yes they are growing great (that is, compared to the past 10 years).  They really seem to like what I did to them.  Then I started to look on YouTube at various Bonsai channels and was amazed how others hacked at roots, combed them out, arranged them to make them look like a “natural” tree with spread out roots, you name it.  I hurt and I cringed when I watched them hack at the roots.  But the plants recovered and did great!  (Here is one of the channels I watch).  I was way too gentle. (And wow I just realize, going back to my first post on roots that I mentioned above, maybe cutting all or most of your personal roots may be OK in some cases; you can grow new ones and be fine).

An overview of my selection.  A lot of these plants are close to 30 years old.  I need a bigger table and bonsai pots, but we are getting somewhere.
We all know what roots do; they anchor plants and take up water and nutrients.  Well, there is much more than meets the eyes.  In my teaching I tell my students how roots assist with the decontamination of polluted stormwater.  It seems that the root tips shed sacrificial cells (a.k.a. root cap) as they push through the soil.  These cells serve as nutrients for microorganisms which in turn absorb the pollutants that are in the water and break them down.  The roots will grow longer and the microorganisms will run out of these sacrificial cells to live on.  Eventually they will die and now these pollutants that have been broken down by the microorganisms will be released and become available as  nutrients for the plants and be taken up by the roots that fed them in the first place.  Pretty cool eh?

So it is understandable that combining my interest in roots, my interest in bonsai and my background in botany with a vacation that included hiking in the woods resulted in some photographs of some cool root structures.  In bonsai we are always interested in roots over rock, or showing a nice radial root structure over the ground.  When working with ficus trees, it is fun to get aerial roots.  In other words, I have been walking in the woods being aware of roots.  Here are a few pictures of some roots I have seen lately.

We found this root in Bigelow Hollow State Park in Connecticut.  The soil must have eroded quite a but to expose this much root since roots do not typically grow like this over the air.  You only get to see them when the soil erodes away.  This tree does not look very old, which leads me to the conclusion that erosion was very fast in this area.

This photo was taken along the Appalachian Trail in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (where we went for a 7.3 mile hike).  This one looks somewhat older but again the soil has eroded quite far.  Grated this is on a ridge, but still.  I love it the way this root has found its way in and around the rock.
During our visit to Pittsburgh in July we went for a hike on the Trillium Trail and tripped over this root structure of this massive beech.  Here again, soil erosion is very evident.

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