The roots of a plant play an important role to help the plant grow and thrive. They anchor the plant in the soil; absorb water and minerals; and store excess food for future needs underground. We are all familiar with eatable roots like carrots, beets parsnips and potatoes. But what about the roots of native and wild plants? What are their attributes? Do they provide food and medicine? Yes! And native plant roots are easy to cultivate and harvest.
One of the really nice things about bringing native plants back into our environments is that they are already acclimated to our local soils, rainfall and nutrient loads. Garden soils need little work for native plants to flourish.
The roots of plants have four regions: (1) a root cap; (2) a zone of division; (3) a zone of elongation; and (4) a zone of maturation.
The root cap is a cup-shaped group of cells at the tip of the root which protects the delicate cells behind the cap as it pushes through the soil. The root cap secretes mucigel, a substance that acts as a lubricant to aid in its movement. The root cap also plays a role in a plant’s response to gravity. If you were to place a young plant on its side the stem would grow upward toward the light and the root cap would direct the roots downward. Yes, the root follows gravity toward the earth’s core. The root cap firmly drives the roots downward in most plants. So strong and persistent is this mechanism that roots has been known to break through rock, concrete and other hard surfaces. Some scientists also believe that the downward direction of the root may also be that the plant is trying to escape the sun’s radiation. (Ott 1973)
Above the root cap is the zone of division and above that is the zone of elongation.
The zone of division contains growing and dividing meristematic cells. As we learned last time the meristem cells are very important to the design and function of a plant, they hold the DNA of the plant and create new cells for the expansion of the plant. If something damages the meristem cells the plant will either die or be deformed.
After each cell division, one daughter cell retains the properties of the meristem cell, while the other daughter cell (in the zone of elongation) elongates sometimes up to as much as 150 times. As a result, the root tip is literally pushed through the soil.
In the zone of maturation, cells differentiate and serve such functions as protection, storage, and conductance. Seen in cross section, the zone of maturation of many roots has an outer layer (the epidermis), a deeper level (the cortex), and a central region that includes the conducting vascular tissue.
The root systems of native plants
The root of a plant provides a significant competitive edge to a plant trying to reach light. The root of a plant such as a tree provides an anchor and base as the tree stretches to the top of the forest. In general, the deeper the root and wider it’s base, the larger the plant.
We all have experienced the stunting of plant growth when a root has not the right soil to anchor in. The tilth and depth of the soil is important to healthy roots.
Roots uptake water from the ground. The leaves of a plant act to channel rainfall and water to the roots which in turn absorbs it and distributes it inside the plant. The root is also very good at uptaking toxins and heavy metals. This is why plants are so good and helping to clean up the earth. This process is called bioremediation. This intense uptake can also make eating roots and plants dangerous to human health. That is why it is such a good idea to grow your own food or only purchase organically grown food. For instance potatoes grown in the toxic fields of commercial chemical farms are very contaminated.
ALL MY RELATIONS
Beneficial soil fungi (mycorrhizae) form symbiotic relationships with the tender, young roots of many species of higher plants.
Rhizoboa bacterial influence on plant roots
The mycelium fungus penetrates the root and also the soil around the root. The fungi open up or “till” the area around the root so that its root hairs can thrive. Mycelium collects nutrients from the soil such as phosphorus and nitrogen and uses it not only for its own benefit but that of the host plant. In return the higher plant supplies the fungus with photosynthesized foods, including sugars. Another important symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi involves the soil bacteria rhizobium. Rhizobium “fixes” the nitrogen around the young roots of many angiosperms especially members of the pea family (Fabaceae, formerly Leguminosae). Rhizobium and several species of blue-green algae or cynobacteria) are able to “fix nitrogen” by converting nitrogen gas (N2) in our atmosphere into a nitrogen that is useable by the plant. The bacteria invade the root of a plant causing it to enlarge in groups of root nodules. The host plant provides the rhizobium with carbohydrates.
Frankia nodules on Red Alder roots
Another important nitrogen-fixing bacterium in our Cascadian bioregion is Frankia ahni. Red Alder (Alnus rubra) and other types of alders are the host for this important bacterium. Alder is particularly noted for its important symbiotic relationship with Frankia alni, an actinomycete, filamentous, nitrogen-fixing bacterium. This bacterium is found in root nodules, which may be as large as a human fist, with many small lobes and light brown in appearance. The practice of removing alders from conifer tree farms and clear cut replants has caused much damage to the eco-systems in our region. Massive amounts of herbicides are used to kill Alders in clear cuts. If you look at the soil after this poisoning, you will find dead, grey hard compacted soil that will take years to recover.
Over use of fungicides and herbicides in the garden and natural areas is killing off the mycelium and the beneficial bacterium that thrive on the roots of plants. The cumulative effect of years of poison application is destroying native plant habitat. There is much discussion about this fungi-plant relationship in Permaculture. Permaculture looks at all the relations of living things in each community and welcomes native plants. The roots of plants found in natural undisturbed areas are a wonder to behold.
THE HAIRY TRUTH
If you look closely at the root of a newly sprouted seed you will see a fuzzy area all around the root. These are actually root hairsor extensions of the outer root cells. The primary function of the root hairs is to increase, by several hundred-fold, the organs absorptive surface level. That is why you must be very gentle when transplanting seedlings so as not to tear off the root hairs. You can stunt the growth of the plant for good by damaging the root hairs. (A really fast way to observe root hairs is to sprout radish seed between wet paper towels. Radish seed can sometimes sprout in 2 to 3 days.)
Later on as the plant shoots up above the ground, the root will produce branches which will become part of the root ball.
It was once believed that the root of a plant was the brain or center and electrical nervous system of the plant. Much research has been done to prove that while the root operates like the human heart expanding and contracting and sending out fluids and signals to the rest of the plant, there are many other ways for the plant to relay information. Much communication happens on the cellular level simultaneously throughout the plant. The root however is a powerful distributor of chemicals, electrical charge and food storage. That is why the root of the plant is such a complete food for animals and a very powerful medicine as well for humans and animals. Peter Thompkins and Christopher Bird wrote a book in 1973 that became a cult favorite of plant lovers. “The Secret Life of Plants: A fascinating account of the physical emotional, and spiritual relations between plants and man.” The book offered extensive research from around the world that provided much new information for the naturalist and gardener. The book delves into the profound relationship between root and plant, and root and man and animal including how humans foraged for plants and roots for thousands of years. Thompkins and Bird looked at the relationship between plants and human health and healing and found much evidence that wild plants resonate at a closer level to human cells energy than do cultivated plants. (Thompkins and Bird pg 306-07)
THE ROOTS OF OLD
The roots of native plants can be extremely beneficial to human health. First peoples referred to any part of a plant growing underground as a root. Bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes are often lumped into the family of roots. The term root crop refers to any edible underground plant structure, but many root crops are actually stems, such as potato tubers. Rhizomes are simply underground stems. They grow horizontally just below the soil’s surface. They will continue to grow and creep along under the surface with lots and lots of growing points. Examples of rhizomes would be lilies, irises, and asparagus. A corm looks a lot like a bulb but is the actual base for the plant stem and has a solid texture. As the plant grows, the corm shrivels as the nutrients are used up. Essentially the corm dies, but it does produce new corms right next to or above the dead corm. If you look closely at the bottom of the corm, rhizome and bulb you will find true roots.
First people were very organized in their harvesting of native roots. So important were roots as a staple crop and medicine that tribes would negotiate ownership rights to these areas. The area was cultivated, protected, and specific rules of harvest were instigated. The rules of harvest included making sure that the plant would come back year after year. The root was harvested in a way that did not harm the plant or its community. One rule was to never tear at the plant. A sharp knife or root stick was used to cleanly cut the roots. Another rule was never to destroy the tap or mother root. Smaller side roots were harvested. That way the plant could keep growing. This was hard to do when harvesting the bulb of camas or the corm of Wapato. However, in these cases care was taken to not overharvest an area. The land, water and environment was to be protected. These practices guaranteed a continuous crop each season. There are all sorts of stories about the destruction of native root plants because humans were greedy in their collection practices or because acts of genocide against the First Nations of Cascadia included destroying nutritional and medicinal plants. (see my essay on Wapato)
ROOT MEDICINE OR “SKOOKUM”
The word “Skookum” comes from Chinook Jargon used as a Pacific Northwest trading language and was used by many tribes. The word meant to be strong, powerful or having special powers. Roots of plants were thought to be very Skookum. Roots were harvested and dried to be used fresh or over many months. Here is a list of my favorite native plants whose roots were harvested for food or medicine.
|Plant Common Name
||Plant Latin Name
||How it was used
||Where it is found
|Dull Oregon GrapeTall Oregon GrapeIn the Barberry family
||Mahonia nervosaMahonia aquifoliumAlso known as Berberidaceas
||The shredded bark of the stem and roots were used to make a bright yellow dye for basket materialsThe root is a bitter herb. The root was boiled and the liquid drunk to cure coughs and stomach disorders. The Squaxin, Swinomish and Samish prepared a tea of the root to be used as a gargle for sore throat and drunk in the spring to purify the blood. Oregon grape and its cousin goldenseal act very similarly. But since Oregon grape is
easy to grow and is not threatened with extinction, more and more herbal practitioners are switching from goldenseal to Oregon grape to treat a range of conditions.
|Dry to fairly moist, open to closed forests at low to middle elevations
|WapatoBroadleaf Arrowhead, tule potato, duck potato, arrowleaf
||The Wapato tuper was eaten raw (although somewhat bitter) or cooked. Wapato tubers were prepared for eating by boiling, or by baking in hot ashes or in underground pits, after which they could be eaten or dried for long-term storage or trading. The taste of the Wapato is much like that of the potato.The tuber was an energy food much like potatoes. Only this plant also yielded some iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium and other minerals. It was an outstanding food when there was a shortage of protein. It is very high in carbohydrates.
||Wapato is an herbaceous wetland plant. The leaves and flower stalk rise above the water. The leaves are arrow-shaped (sagittate). Leaf stems attach directly to the base of the plant like celery. The base is partially submerged in the muck, giving rise to the roots and rhizomes below.
||Native American informants and botanist Ernst Stuhr report that the root of the skunk cabbage (Lysichitum americanum) was the main ingredient of the infamous “Skookum” which was reported to be a blend of plants that was reputed to be a stimulant, antispoasmodic, and emetic for bronchial and pulmonary afflictions. It was also used as a salve for ringworm, swellings and inflammatory rheumatism. The root is very bitter.
||Swamps, fens, muskeg, wet forest, mucky seepage areas, wet meadows, at low to middle elevations.
|Western TrilliumBirth root, Beth root
||A tea of the root was used as an eye wash by the Lummi and Skagit peoples. The root is used as an alternative medicine and is antiseptic, antispasmodic, diuretic, emmenagogue (to promote menstruation), and ophthalmic. The roots, fresh or dry, may be boiled in milk and used for diarrhea and dysentery. The raw root is grated and applied as a poultice to the eye in order to reduce swelling, or on aching rheumatic joints. An infusion of the root is used in the treatment of cramps and a common name for the plant, ‘birthroot’, originated from its use to promote menstruation. A decoction of the root bark can be used as drops in treating earache. Considered to be a sacred female herb.
||Moist to wet woods, stream banks, shaded open areas; at low to middle elevations
||The Snohomish used the shredded nettle root as a hair wash. The root and the rest of the plant as well as the needles and bark of the white fir were pounded together and boiled and put into a bath to be used as a general tonic. The Quileute pound the root and drink the boiled infusion in small amounts for rheumatism. The root was used for yellow dye.
||Meadows, thickets, open forest and stream banks. Often found in disturbed areas. Always in moist rich soils; common locally from the lowlands to subalpine elevations.
|Fern – Licorice
||Polypodium glycyrrhaiza or Polypodium vulgare
||This fern rhizome has a distinct licorice flavor is somewhat sweet. It was a favorite medicine for many people. The rhizome is roasted by the Makah, peeled, chewed, and the juice swallowed for colds coughs and sore throats. The Cowlitz crush the rhizome, mix it with young fir needles, boil it, and drink the infusion for coughs. The root is demulcent, pectoral, purgative and anthelmintic
||Found on wet mossy ground, logs and rocks. Also found on the trunks of trees and often found on big-leaf maple at low elevations.
||Cattail is a member of the grass family, Gramineae, as are rice, corn, wheat, oats, barley, and rye, just to mention a few. Traditionally, Typha latifolia has been a part of many native North American cultures, as a source of food, medicine, and for other uses. The rhizomes are edible after cooking and removing the skin, while peeled stems and leaf bases can be eaten raw, or cooked. Some cultures make use of the roots of T. latifolia as a poultice for boils, burns, or wounds. In early spring, dig up the roots to locate the small pointed shoots called corms. These can be removed, peeled, and eaten, added to other spring greens for a salad, or cooked in stews or alone as a pot herb. As the plant growth progresses to where the shoots reach a height of two to three feet above the water, peel and eat like the corms, or sautee. Root starch is harvested until late spring. The starch is made into flour. The root can also be made into a natural sweetener. The root contains vitamin C, A and micronutrients.
||Marshes, ponds, lakeshores, and wet ditches, in slow-flowing or quiet water; low to middle elevations
Angiosperm (an·gi·o·sperm). noun. Botany. a plant that has flowers and produces seeds enclosed within a carpel. The angiosperms are a large group and include herbaceous plants, shrubs, grasses, and most trees. Compare with gymnosperm.
Phlo.em (fl m ). n. The food-conducting tissue of vascular plants, consisting of sieve tubes, fibers, parenchyma, and sclereids. Also called bast.
- Capon, Brian (1990) (Revised 3rd edition, 2005) Botany for Gardeners, Timber Press, Portland, London
- Gunther, Erna. (1945) (Revised 1973) Ethnobotany of Western Washington. Knowledge and use of Indigenous plants by Native Americans, University of Washington Press.
- Meyer, Joseph E. (1918) (Revised 1970) The Herbalist, Meyer Books Publishing
- Ott, John Nash (1973) Health and Light – The effects of Natural and Artificial Light on Man and Other Living Things. Old Greenwich, Conn. Devin-Adair
- Pojar & McKinnon, (1994) Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska, Lone Pine Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia
- Stur, Ernst T. (1933) Manual of Pacific Coast Drug plants, Ernst Theodore Stuhr Papers, Oregon State University Archives, Corvallis, Oregon.
- Tompkins, Peter and Bird, Christopher (1973) The Secret Life of Plants: A fascinating account of the physical emotional, and spiritual relations between plants and man. Perennial – HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY
- O’Shea, Ellen “Honoring our ancestral plants: Wapato” (2011) https://radicalbotany.com/2011/02/21/honoring-our-ancestral-plants-wapato/
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