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Looking belowground: Investigations into belowground plant organs in grasslands and around the world

January, 2017 to December, 2022

Four researchers crouch or stand in a grassy field collecting samples.
Ott, Martínková, Klimeš, and Řeháková sample in the field at Konza Prairie in Manhattan, KS. Based on initial measurements, Rosa arkansana rhizomes as long as 3ft 10in connected two individual plants. (Photo: Ondřej Mudrák)
Plant ecology studies how plants respond to their environment. In general, most plant ecology studies focus on the aboveground response of herbaceous plants with little consideration of the important plant reserves belowground. Plants can use belowground structures to store nutrients and form regenerative buds. Both are important as buds often grow out to replace aboveground plant tissue lost to herbivory, fire, general disturbance, and natural senescence at the end of the growing season or due to inhospitable growing conditions (like drought or freezing temperatures). The stored nutrients support this bud outgrowth. 

A good understanding of belowground plant organs assists scientists and managers in understanding aboveground responses to management actions. In grassland and forested ecosystems, the majority of aboveground forage, which supports wildlife and livestock, comes from belowground buds and is supported by belowground organs. Successful perennial grass invaders often have strong belowground support systems.  In order to understand the role of these belowground organs in aboveground responses, we need basic research evaluating belowground traits of species around the world as well as applied research understanding how these belowground traits can inform aboveground spatial and temporal patterns in aboveground species composition and productivity important to managers and producers. 

A scientist sits at a table writing, with a microscope to her right and a plant sample to her left.
Klimešová draws belowground clonal organs of perennial plants in the lab. She has produced the first and only belowground plant trait database in the world (CLO-PLA) for central Europe. (Photo: Ondřej Mudrák)
A shovel lays next to a researcher who reaches into a hole he's dug. A leafy perennial plant sticks out of the hole.
Klimeš unearths Cucurbita foetidissima at the Central Plains Experimental Range in Colorado. Cucurbita foetidissima thickened roots went down at least 2.5 feet from the soil surface. (Photo: Ondřej Mudrák)
In an effort to shed more light on belowground plant organ morphology, anatomy, physiology, and demography, we have worked on:

  • Writing a synthesis on belowground bud banks of herbaceous plants
  • Producing a handbook on how to measure important belowground traits
  • Assessing belowground plant traits across latitudinal and precipitation gradients in North American Great Plains


Through a collaboration with Jitka Klimešová and David Hartnett, we have provided a recent synthesis on bud banks of herbaceous plants to help push this research field forward (see Ott et al. 2019). Additionally, belowground plant ecology colleagues from around the world have put together a protocol to help standardize how individuals collect belowground trait data so we can summarize and synthesize future belowground plant research around the world (see Klimešová et al, 2019). 

In the Great Plains of North America, most plants rely on belowground organs to recover following grazing, drought, and fire, which are the main drivers of the grassland ecosystem. Jiri Dolezal and Jitka Klimešová at the Institute of Botany of the Czech Academy of Science have partnered with Jacqueline Ott (RMRS) to sample belowground organs from the common species across the east-west precipitation gradient and the north-south latitudinal gradient of the Great Plains.  Each species will be evaluated for clonality, root sprouting capability, belowground organ type, storage capability, lateral spread, and persistence of connection of new and old shoots. This will provide foundational information for our Great Plains grasslands. 

Current field sites can be found in North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In 2019, the team sampled at the Northern Great Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory in Mandan, ND, Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, MT, Buffalo Gap National Grassland near Smithwick, SD, the Central Plains Experimental Range near Fort Collins, CO, Fort Hays State University in KS, and Konza Prairie Biological Station in Manhattan, KS. Sampling will continue in 2020.

Key Findings

  • 14 belowground plant traits can be assessed using our newly published protocol
  • Bud banks can stabilize aboveground population dynamics and confer resistance to disturbance and invasion

A smiling scientist holds up perennial plant samples. The plant has extensive rhizomes visible, belowground root-like structures. She is standing in a botany lab.
Klimešová holds a plant sample from Fort Hays, KS showing the extensive belowground rhizomes. (Photo: Ondřej Mudrák)
Four scientists stand in a grassy field, two digging, and two holding plant samples. One of the samples is a branch-y bush of a plant that reaches from the ground to the bottom of their chest.
Blumenthal helps the team harvest an Atriplex species at the Central Plains Experimental Range in Colorado. (Photo: Ondřej Mudrák)


Klimesova, Jitka ; Martínkova, Jana ; Pausas, Juli G. ; de Moraes, Moemy Gomes ; Herben, Tomas ; Yu, Fei-Hai ; Puntieri, Javier ; Vesk, Peter A. ; de Bello, Francesco ; Janecek, Stepan ; Altman, Jan ; Appezzato-da-Gloria, Beatriz ; Bartuskova, Alena ; Crivellaro, Alan ; Dolezal, Jiri ; Ott, Jacqueline P. ; Paula, Susana ; Schnablova, Renata ; Schweingruber, Fritz H. ; Ottaviani, Gianluigi , 2019
Ott, Jacqueline P. ; Klimesova, Jitka ; Hartnett, David C. , 2019

Project Contact: 

Principal Investigators:
Jitka Klimešová - Institute of Botany- Czech Academy of Science
Jiri Dolezal - Institute of Botany- Czech Academy of Science
Jana Martínková - Institute of Botany- Czech Academy of Science
Ondřej Mudrák - Institute of Botany- Czech Academy of Science
Klára Řeháková - Institute of Botany- Czech Academy of Science

Dana Blumenthal - USDA-ARS- Ft Collins, CO
Mitchell Greer - Fort Hays State University
David Hartnett - Kansas State University- emeritus
John Hendrickson - USDA-ARS- Mandan, ND
Jeff Taylor - Kansas State University- Konza Prairie Biological Station
Lance Vermeire - USDA-ARS- Miles City, MT

Research Staff:
Vojtĕch Klimeš - Czech Institute of Botany

Funding Contributors:
Czech Ministry of Education
Czech Institute of Botany
Rocky Mountain Research Station