Summer on a Shoestring


Root Identification – It’s Messy!
August 13, 2014, 4:24 pm
Filed under: Roots

By: Michael Grentzer – REU Miami University, Oxford OH

White Ash Roots

White Ash Roots

    So you want to know how to identify roots do ya?  It’s a messy business.  No, literally!  Prepare to get your hand caked in soil and to strain your eyes squinting at root cross-sections.  Identifying the roots out here in NH is not an easy task.  There are around seven species of trees and gob loads of herbaceous plants.  For the scientists out there, it only makes it more interesting and painstaking.  The roots come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, tastes, and smells.  You might be asking yourself about the last two adjectives, and you read that right.  Some the plants out here are distinguished best by their smell or taste.  This involves sinking you teeth deep into the root or scratching and sniffing the surface of the root.  You are rewarded with a sweet wintergreen taste/smell, a bitter smell/taste of bad medicine, or just plain ole’ nothing.  The tree and herb roots, while virtually the same and insignificant to the average person, are a treasure trove of information about the forest.  At the moment we are trying to distinguish the differences between the soil just millimeters away from the root, what we call rhizosphere, and the rest of the soil.  We’re testing for differences in microbial activity, nitrogen mineralization or the transformation of the nitrogen in the air to soluble compounds used for many life functions, and not but least moisture content. 

Red Maple Roots

Red Maple Roots

     Before we could do all this though, we needed to identify what root belonged to which species and this involved looking at the tips of the itty bity fine roots, the root’s curviness, the cross-section, color, smell, and taste.  Maple roots were predominantly loaded with these small beaded fine root tips.  Pin cherries tended to give off a sour smell and medicine-like taste.  The birch roots smelled and sometimes tasted like wintergreen, and the beech roots looked wiry and had a white star-shaped cross-section.  Sadly, determining the exact species could be done in areas that had only one species of a genus.  The roots tended to look too similar in most cases within a genus and made it nearly impossible to determine species without molecular data.  It’s tough and time-consuming, but in the end, we were able to accomplish this tough task. 

American Beech Roots

American Beech Roots

Pin Cherry Roots

Pin Cherry Roots

White Birch Roots

White Birch Roots

~ Michael 

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