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.
In an effort to shed more light on belowground plant organ morphology, anatomy, physiology, and demography, we have worked on:
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.