A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Practical Magic of Roots

Just about every plant needs roots. Even Tillandsia, air plants, sprout roots that allow them to anchor themselves to whatever’s handy; when you buy an air plant, its roots have been trimmed off, but the good folks at Air Plant City advise against trimming them too close, lest you damage the plant. But for the vast majority, excluding mosses and their close relations the worts, roots are essential—they’re how the plants feed. (Interestingly, air plants get nutrition through trichomes, little hairlike structures that are also present on cannabis plants, although smoking air plants is a bad idea.)

Root systems are actually about much more than nutrition. Roots connect the plant to the mycorrhizal network beneath the soil, a fungal web that allows them to transfer resources from plant to plant. For example, plants in nitrogen-rich soil can share with plants in nitrogen-poor soil. But beyond simple nutrients, plants actually communicate through the mycorrhizal network, transmitting biochemical and electrical signals that impact their growth and behavior. They also share infochemicals and allelochemicals that help them defend against infections and pests. (There was even a study that sought to decode the electrical impulses plants send through the fungi; scientists were able to identify about fifty different “words” being used, but have no idea at all what they mean.)

Roots are actually the first thing created when a seed germinates, reaching down to anchor and nutrify. A fully developed root system looks like a leafless, larger mirror image of the plant it supports, spreading into subterranean branches that bear a considerable resemblance to the human vascular and nervous systems, and something of a resemblance to the way nebulae arrange themselves in outer space to transform hydrogen and cosmic dust into new stars. 

In humans, roots are subtler. The term’s often used to refer to genetic backgrounds that inform our DNA or the geographic spot where we were born. One beautiful thing about humans is our ability to generate fresh root systems even when those initial roots are severed. In a new family or a new place, we can choose to sink a taproot into whatever soil we find and send out tendrils to connect to the social mycorrhizae, finding nourishment and communication, getting anchored. We’re not limited to the roots we started out with, impactful as they may be. (Plants, of course, can be transplanted, but any gardener knows it can take some extra TLC to get transplants to thrive—also true of humans.)

As far as anyone can tell, it was agriculture that led humans to put down geographical roots in the first place. Once our species learned to help and nurture plants in putting down roots, we were empowered to feed ourselves and each other much more reliably, at greater scale; once the knowledge was part of our culture, we could carry it with us around the planet and through the millennia, adapting as ice ages melted and forests became desert and sea levels shifted. People who can nurture seeds don’t have to rely on the whims of their fellow beings, be they animal or vegetable, to stay alive the way hunter-gatherers do.

That’s as true as it ever was, and one of the best gifts you can give to yourself and your loved ones is reconnecting to that ancient knowledge if you’ve lost touch. There’s a reason so many people love gardening. We’re wired for it, whether it means putting a couple of containers of tomato plants on the porch (and we all know supermarket tomatoes can be atrocious) or herbs on the kitchen windowsill, tilling up a plot in the yard that will generate crisp fresh peppers and hilarious amounts of zucchini, or starting your own farm. The smell of wet earth makes us happy; there are microbes in the soil that help us produce the great mood molecule serotonin, and the experience of digging and tending and nurturing has a pleasant, playful feel. Plus, you get beauty and food. Talk about some intensely practical magic. Even houseplants make the air better indoors.

If you’ve never tried gardening, why not give it a go? Container gardening and raised beds save untold amounts of fuss, being easier to protect from hungry critters and weedy competitors. There’s something wonderful about sprouting your own seeds, but lots of great plants like tomatoes and peppers can be purchased as youngsters from your favorite farm or hardware store. If you’d really like to get immersed, there are farms where volunteering can get you a free or super-cheap CSA share.

At season’s end, when the harvest is over and the individual plant is about to begin the slow process of returning to soil, pull one up and take a minute to marvel at the roots—the strong anchor roots, the smaller ones that spread and dwindle to spindly threads, tiny but incredibly powerful. Compared to the underground web of the roots and mycorrhizae, our World Wide Web is but a crude imitation. But maybe we can get better and better at using that, and all of our complicated interconnections, to spread our resources and nurture one another.

KINGSTON ROOTED RESOURCES: Where to find supplies, tools and wisdom

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster Horticulture Hotline 
845-340-DIRT (3478)

Seed Song Farm and Center
160 Esopus Avenue

Buzzanco’s Greenhouses and Farm
2050 Sawkill Ruby Rd

Hudson Valley Seed Company
4734 Route 209, Accord

KaN Landscape Design

Kingston YMCA Farm Project
507 Broadway

Augustine Nursery
177 Van Kleek Lane

Adams Fairacre Farms Kingston
1560 Ulster Avenue