Diggin’ Deeper into the Underworld of Grasslands

Unearthing the importance of native plants and root systems in grassland ecosystems
Pasqueflowers. Photo: Josh Lefers/Audubon Great Plains

As a habitat certification program, Audubon Conservation Ranching works, primarily through the practice of well-managed rotational grazing, to stabilize grassland bird populations. As indicator species, grassland birds can represent the overall health of their environments. In this post, we’ll explore just how deep the environmental benefits beyond birds run.

Native grasslands are not just beautiful landscapes; they are vibrant ecosystems teeming with life, from the tips of swaying grasses to the intricate networks beneath our feet. One key player in the hidden world of grassland ecosystems is native plants and their root systems.

First, native plants – grasses, wildflowers, and select shrubs – have evolved over time to thrive in specific grassland habitats, their root systems playing a pivotal role in maintaining soil and soil health.

Soil Health

Native plant roots penetrate deep into the soil – sometimes up to four times deeper than the height of the plant itself – carving out channels and pores that improve soil structure, enhancing water infiltration and reducing erosion. For example, the central taproot of the native compass plant can extend 15 feet into the ground!

These extensive root systems help anchor the soil in place, preventing erosion and reducing sediment runoff into water bodies. This helps maintain water clarity and prevents the loss of valuable topsoil.

Water Filtration

The dense root systems of native plants act as natural filters, capturing and absorbing pollutants and excess nutrients that would otherwise enter water bodies. This filtration process helps improve water quality and reduces the risk of algal blooms and other water-related issues.

Organic Matter

As native plants grow, they shed organic matter through their roots, forming a rich and fertile soil layer. This organic matter acts as a food source for soil microorganisms, promoting their activity and nutrient cycling.

Native plants and their root systems facilitate the cycling of essential nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, by absorbing and releasing them back into the soil, making them available to other organisms.

Below-Ground Biodiversity

The root systems of native plants provide vital habitats and support a diverse array of organisms below the ground.

Native plant roots release sugars and other compounds that nourish a diverse community of soil microorganisms. These microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, form symbiotic relationships with the roots, aiding in nutrient cycling, disease suppression, and soil health.

Native grasslands also support a rich diversity of invertebrates, such as earthworms, beetles, and ants, which rely on native plants for food, shelter, and reproduction. These invertebrates contribute to nutrient cycling, soil aeration, and other important ecosystem functions.

Native plants and their root systems are crucial for soil health, water quality, and below-ground biodiversity in the native and restored grasslands in which the Audubon Conservation Ranching program works. Birds are what we want to see, but the role of native plants and their intricate root systems shouldn’t go unnoticed – it’s hard at work, even when you can’t see it.

Upcoming posts:

  • Audubon Conservation Ranching: A Diversity Initiative for Our Grasslands (6/25)
  • Connecting Consumers to Grassland Conservation (7/1)