Putting Down Roots

The roots of the leadplant chart a course toward the center of the earth. Thirsty and longing for stability, they branch, spread and burrow further and further into the soil. Encountering a rock or a flat pan of clay, they will pause, turn, and then continue their travels laterally. In sandy soils, where rainwater is a quickly vanishing commodity, leadplant can easily grow roots 16 feet deep. Above ground, its delicate grayish purple blooms stand only two or three feet tall.

Finding leadplant growing deep in your back-forty is an indicator of remnant prairie and a reminder that which once blanketed the Great Plains states. Where now there are corn fields, wheat fields and houses with close trimmed lawns, once grew big bluestem, purple coneflower, compass plant and cylindric blazing star. With sprawling root systems four feet, nine feet, even fifteen feet deep, these prairie flowers and grasses can withstand the ravishes of nature, finding water in the midst of drought, retaining life during the most frigid winters, and even surviving fire.

American pioneers plowed the prairie under and then watched as the crops they planted gradually robbed the soil of its nutrients. When drought hit in the 1930’s, vast stretches of open land dried up and blew away in the wind. Soil and Water Conservation Districts were created in response to this catastrophe and began working with farmers to manage the land more wisely. Among the practices that SWCD’s continue to promote today is the use of cover crops to stabilize soil on fallow fields, as well as the planting of deep-rooted native plants in erosion prone areas such as streambanks and steep hillsides.

These days, many local residents are rediscovering the benefits of native plants. Easy to please, Minnesota natives demand no sprinklers, watering cans or hoses, unlike non-native Kentucky Blue Grass. Ill-equipped with paltry roots only two to three inches deep, our most favored lawn grass requires life support from sprinklers and store-bought fertilizers. With groundwater levels projected to decline by 10-20 feet in many east metro communities, and more than 40 feet in southwestern Washington County, it will become harder and harder for us to justify using precious drinking water supplies to keep our grass green.

Surprisingly, though native plants are adapted to repeated drought cycles, many are also quite adept at managing wet weather. During winter months, approximately one third of their roots will slough off, leaving tiny channels behind that help guide rain and melting snow into the ground. This process also helps to soften compacted soils, a major problem in developed areas. The roots of the native plants cling tenaciously to the earth, refusing to relinquish their grasp even when they are pummeled by waves or coursing floodwaters. Stubborn nature makes a well-established community of native plants as effective a stabilizer, if not more so, than rocks or retaining walls for hillsides, streambanks and lakeshores.

Beneath our feet, the roots of the leadplant have yet another secret in store. Tiny nodules along the length of their sinewy fingers produce nitrogen compounds that help the plant to grow. When the roots slough off, the fixed nitrogen is released, making it available to other plants and helping to fertilize the soil. Leadplant is a model in self-sufficiency.

 Ignorant to the invisible world of life below ground, many of us invite native plants into yards both large and small, simply because they are beautiful. In shades of purple, gold, pink and yelow, some bloom with brillance in the late summer, while others offer small and delicate petals that quickly vanish in the spring. With this beauty comes life. Blazing star, milkweed and golden alexanders draw butterflies like magnets, while native shrubs like serviceberry, chokecherry and wild plum provide feasts for the birds. Pheasants, deer and grouse join the banquet, and soon a beautifully planted landscape is no longer a still life.

 A wide-range of programs exist to help local residents bring native plants back into our landscape. The St. Croix Oak Savanna Chapter of Wild Ones, www.for-wild.org/chapters/scos, hosts monthly talks by guest speakers, along with tours of nearby prairies, woods and wetlands. Blue Thumb – Planting for Clean Water, http://www.bluethumb.org/, features a plant-selector tool on its website to help people select the best native plants for their yards, as well as a list of local retailers and sample garden blueprints. Many local watershed agencies also offer grants for people to plant natives along shoreline property and in raingardens. Visit www.mnwcd.org/cleanwater to learn if grants or other assistance are available in your area.

Whether you appreciate native plants for their beauty, their ability to attract birds, or simply because they offer the gift of leisurely landscaping, one fact is clear. While they may provide many benefits above ground, their true magic is in the roots.