“The fine roots of perennial plants are a royal pain to study”.
Sometime during my fine-root-heavy PhD, I read this sentence from Kurt Pregitzer in the New Phytologist (2002; 154: 267–273). I could identify so much with this statement that it made it onto the back cover of my PhD thesis. It is a royal pain to study fine roots: they are usually invisible in their native habitat, small and often fragile, grow in a medium that is sticky and doesn’t want to part from them, and all in all they seem to just want to give you a hard time – which is why we know so comparatively little about them. Yet, as most plant or ecosystem ecologists will readily admit their importance, it is also very exciting to work with them. Maybe this is just part of being a researcher, but somehow, during the winter months when I am not in the field, I forget how much of a pain it is to study roots, and just get excited about the project I am planning or the data I will be collecting the following growing season. And voilà, roots will play an important part in that work.
As I mentioned before, I have moved to a new position and have been juggling field work for both old and new projects over the summer. So while the invasive earthworms are digging away in the tundra mesocosms (see my last post), I have also started digging for roots in temperate wetlands. I will probably be writing more about the project and group I have joined in the following months. For now, let me just say that we are all working on different aspects of drained and re-wetted peatlands in northern Germany, and I am excited to be in the “plant biomass with a focus on roots” part of the project. We are planning to install root litterbags this autumn, and have been working hard on getting the material for that. Some vegetation types give us a solid yield of beautiful fine roots, whereas others are proving to be very difficult. Eyes are strained, shoulders stiff, and fingers hurt from holding tweezers – oh, the joy of working with roots. After countless hours of washing roots out of peat (which in this case, ironically, is build up mainly by roots and rhizomes) the motivation is slowly going down, and moral has to be kept up with countless hours of podcasts (recommendations are welcome!) and dance music. We are getting closer to our root biomass target though, so we will hopefully install the litterbags soon, and then there is time to get back to my desk and start getting excited about the science behind all the pain again.
PS: Isn’t it somewhat ironic that one of the songs of this summer seems to be “no roots” from Alice Merton? “I like digging holes and hiding things inside them, […] I’ve got no roots” The lyrics of this song probably have a very different meaning for me than for most people. Or is she also sorting roots for litterbags?