What you can expect roots to do for your plant

A plant's beauty is found in its flowers or foliage, right? Well, what have you got against roots?

Roots are the first structures to develop in a growing plant. Roots provide plants with an anchor, something to hold them in the ground. They also absorb nutrients and water from the soil. In addition, most roots are adapted as food storage organs, like sweet potatoes. (How's that for interesting Thanksgiving conversation?).

There are two types of root systems: taproot and fibrous. As the name implies, a taproot system is made up of a root that "taps" into the ground and grows straight down. The taproot has many branches, or lateral roots. In a fibrous root system, one root is not dominant, so the root system looks a lot like a mass of fibers matted together. Taproots usually penetrate the ground deeper than fibrous roots.

Roots and shoots: a balancing act. Plants must keep a balance between the surface area available for food manufacturing (i.e., the leaves or shoots: the photosynthesizing surface) and the surface area available for absorption of water and minerals (i.e., the roots).

When a plant sprouts, there are many roots to few shoots. As the plant ages, that ratio balances out. When a plant's roots are damaged - during a transplant, for example - the roots are invariably damaged, and many of the smaller roots are left behind. This disturbs the balance and may harm the plant, but the plant forms new roots quickly, so it can regain its root-shoot balance. Wouldn't it be nice if humans were this self-correcting?