Students get to the 'root' of the issue

Pipe encasing for prairie roots

UNI prairie roots

Laura Jackson, professor of biologyBeautiful sunflowers, wildflowers and prairie grasses display themselves around the state of Iowa for all to enjoy. But their roots aren't receiving near the amount of glory.

Showcasing the rootsBehind the University of Northern Iowa Biology Research Complex lies a hidden gem, a garden with rows of plants. After just one year, their roots extend four feet below the earth, helping the soil by capturing nutrients and keeping them out of our water supply, preventing erosion and holding water in the soil.

With all the benefits that roots provide, recognition is hard to come by. That is, until the Prairie Roots Project started.

Funded by the Iowa Department of Transportation's Living Roadway Trust Fund, the Prairie Roots Project started last year with the help of the UNI Department of Biology, Facilities Planning services, Professor of Biology Laura Jackson and two ecosystem management graduate students, Julie Wynia and Brianna Castle.

"Extracting these roots is only the beginning of this process," said Jackson. "This project gives us a chance to exhibit the life of underground prairie plants and gives people an understanding of what is going on in our ecosystem. The roots don't get enough credit, and many people don't realize their significance because the roots are hidden underground."

As the plants were taken out of the ground, many were left to continue growing; their roots are expected to reach depths of 10 feet. After removing three plants, their roots were carefully washed before a glycerin-based solution was used to preserve foot after foot of plant life.

"Eventually, the roots will be put on display in museums, nature centers and high school biology classes," said Jackson. "This fosters learning and helps our environment in big ways."

The washing of the prairie roots 



Left: After removing three prairie plants from the Biology Research Complex at UNI, their roots were carefully washed before a glycerin-based solution was used to untangle foot after foot of plant life.