1,100 Delicate Drawings of Root Systems Reveals the Hidden World of Plants

We know that plants can inspire art. If you, per­son­al­ly, still require con­vinc­ing on that point, just have a look at Eliz­a­beth Twining’s Illus­tra­tions of the Nat­ur­al Orders of Plants, the draw­ings of Ernst Hein­rich Haeck­el, Eliz­a­beth Black­well’s A Curi­ous Herbal, and Nan­cy Anne Kings­bury Woll­stonecraft’s Spec­i­mens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba — not to men­tion the paint­ings of Geor­gia O’ Keeffe — all pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture. But those works con­cern them­selves only with plant life as it exists above ground.

What goes on down below, under­neath the soil? That you can see for your­self — and with­out hav­ing to pull up one of our fine flow­er­ing (or non-flow­er­ing) friends to do so — at Wagenin­gen Uni­ver­si­ty’s online archive of root sys­tem draw­ings. “The out­come of 40 years of  root sys­tem exca­va­tions in Europe,” says that site, the col­lec­tion con­tains 1,180 dia­grams of species from Abies alba (best known today as a kind of Christ­mas tree) to Zygo­phyl­lum xan­thoxy­lon (a faint­ly scrub­by-look­ing native of the arid and semi-arid regions of con­ti­nents like Africa and Aus­tralia).

The site explains that “the draw­ings, their analy­sis and descrip­tion were done by Univ. Prof. Dr. Erwin Licht­eneg­ger (1928–2004) and Univ. Prof. Dr. Lore Kutschera (1917–2008), leader of Pflanzen­sozi­ol­o­gis­ches Insti­tut, Kla­gen­furt, (now in Bad Gois­ern, Aus­tria).”

Over the course of 40 years, writes The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Erin Blake­more, Licht­eneg­ger and Kustchera “col­lab­o­rat­ed on an enor­mous ‘root atlas’ that maps the under­ground tra­jec­to­ries of com­mon Euro­pean plants.” Cre­at­ed through “a labo­ri­ous sys­tem of dig­ging up and doc­u­ment­ing the intri­cate sys­tems,” these draw­ings are “also art in their own right, hon­or­ing the beau­ty of a part of plants most nev­er give that much thought.”

Even the least botan­i­cal­ly aware among us knows that plants have roots, but how many of us are aware of the scale and com­plex­i­ty those roots can attain? “Root sys­tems allow plants to gath­er the water and min­er­als they use to grow,” writes Blake­more. “As the root sys­tem grows, it cre­ates more and more path­ways that allow water to get into the deep sub­soil, and fos­ter­ing the growth of microbes that ben­e­fit oth­er life. Strong root sys­tems can pre­vent ero­sion, pro­tect­ing the land on which they grow. And the struc­tures allow the soil to cap­ture car­bon.” Thus root sys­tems, nev­er a par­tic­u­lar locus of cool­ness, have the dis­tinc­tion of doing their part to fight cli­mate change. And thanks to Licht­eneg­ger and Kustcher­a’s draw­ings, they under­score the capac­i­ty of art to reveal worlds hid­den to most of us. View all of the images here.

via Colos­sal

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold an Inter­ac­tive Online Edi­tion of Eliz­a­beth Twining’s Illus­tra­tions of the Nat­ur­al Orders of Plants (1868)

His­toric Man­u­script Filled with Beau­ti­ful Illus­tra­tions of Cuban Flow­ers & Plants Is Now Online (1826)

Ernst Haeckel’s Sub­lime Draw­ings of Flo­ra and Fau­na: The Beau­ti­ful Sci­en­tif­ic Draw­ings That Influ­enced Europe’s Art Nou­veau Move­ment (1889)

A Curi­ous Herbal: 500 Beau­ti­ful Illus­tra­tions of Med­i­c­i­nal Plants Drawn by Eliz­a­beth Black­well in 1737 (to Save Her Fam­i­ly from Finan­cial Ruin)

Two Mil­lion Won­drous Nature Illus­tra­tions Put Online by The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library

The Social Lives of Trees: Sci­ence Reveals How Trees Mys­te­ri­ous­ly Talk to Each Oth­er, Work Togeth­er & Form Nur­tur­ing Fam­i­lies

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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