Jitka Klimesova: why we should all care more about belowground plant organs

Jitka Klimesova serves as Senior Scientist at the Institute of Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Třeboň and as Professor at Charles University in Prague. Her main interest is in functional morphology of clonal and regenerative organs of herbs. She is the main author of the only existing database of clonal and bud bank traits for an entire flora (CLO-PLA; Czech Republic), organizes practical courses on belowground plant functional ecology (Go-belowground!), and the is leading author of a handbook of standardized methods for describing and collecting plant modularity traits.

Jitka Klimesova sorting biomass in field
Jitka Klimesova sorting biomass in field

A mission of my team is to increase awareness about functions of belowground organs others than fine roots that are responsible for clonal growth, overwintering and regeneration after disturbance. Those organs are, for example, rhizomes, tubers or bulbs. All ecologists know that such organs exist but they are not aware of their effect on various plant and ecosystem functions. In the recent study published in Functional Ecology we wanted to test whether traits measured on rhizomes are capable of predicting simple ecosystem functions like aboveground, belowground (rhizome and root separately) biomass allocation strategies and soil carbon.

Ruch v podzemi – researchers measuring plant traits - original linocut by Jitka Klimesova
Ruch v podzemi – researchers measuring plant traits – original linocut by Jitka Klimesova

We compared their predictive power together with largely used aboveground plant traits like leaf traits and plant size. Both groups of traits were similarly good but pointed towards different processes behind their correlation with ecosystem functions. While leaf traits reflect growth rate, rhizome traits reflect demographic parameters of clonal growth and these two sets of functions are mainly independent of each other. Predictability of biomass allocation strategies greatly improved by using rhizome-related traits. Surprisingly, we were unable to predict soil organic carbon, which most likely would require finer scales, experimental studies, in conjunction with more detailed/comprehensive list of predictors (e.g. linked to plant physiology) to capture this key ecosystem function relevant to climate change mitigating policies.

belowground organs (short epigeogenous rhizome and storage root tubers) of meadow herb Filipendula vulgaris
belowground organs (short epigeogenous rhizome and storage root tubers) of meadow herb Filipendula vulgaris

We selected for our study the system that we are the most familiar with: temperate grasslands. Communities there are highly species-rich on small spatial scales, and are maintained by extensive management and dominated by perennial graminoids and forbs that overwinter and resprout after management (mowing or grazing) thanks to belowground organs like rhizomes. For the purpose of the present study, we sampled more than 50 grassland plots from two regions. The fact that the field sampling was done in couple of days, whilst processing belowground biomass (separated by roots and rhizomes) took two years emphasizes why we have such limited information about how much biomass plants invest into different belowground organs, and why we know so little about belowground organs’ function. Most plant ecologists simply avoid this “dirty” and laborious work – but can this be a good reason to ignore some important plant functions? Surely not. Therefore, we will keep going on our mission and interest on rhizomes– and this paper proves the utility of including traits and functions associated with the non-acquisitive belowground compartment of plants.

Mysky – Belowground storage organs or herbs are not only useful but also tasty - original linocut by Jitka Klimesova
Mysky – Belowground storage organs or herbs are not only useful but also tasty – original linocut by Jitka Klimesova

We are planning to undertake two main steps in the future. First, we want to go deeper and study functions associated with belowground coarse organs in experimental set-ups. At the same time, we want to obtain comparable data from other regions and biomes by enlarging the network of scientists (that we have already put in place) interested in belowground plant and ecosystem functioning research. I believe that over the next 5-10 years we will be able to show how many aspects of plants life are dependent on rhizomes, lignotubers and other clonal and regenerative belowground organs. We expect this belowground dimension to be especially relevant in open ecosystems such as tropical and subtropical savanna, Mediterranean shrubland, temperate grassland, or alpine tundra, accounting for ~60% of the global land cover.  

Enjoyed the blog? Now read the paper in full here.

For more of Jitka’s art and biology, see her website here.

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