The roots of perennial wheat

This is not the best photo, but it is pretty damn mind-blowing. What you see here is Jerry Glover, National Geographic Emerging Explorer, holding the root system of a single perennial wheat plant. The photo was taken by Scientific American editor Mariette DiChristina at the Compass Summit in Palos Verdes, California.

There's more to this than just a freaky looking plant dreadlock. That root system represents something far bigger than itself: Soil health. Perennial plants build soil and protect against erosion in ways annual plants and their skimpy root structures simply cannot. It's why, since large-scale corn farming replaced perennial prairie, Iowa has lost some 8 vertical inches of precious topsoil. Glover's argument: To protect our farming resources for future generations we need to pay more attention to the potential benefits of perennial crops.


  1. Given how little industrial farming cares about the long-term health of the soil (or long-term anything, really), it seems like this is going to be a hard sell, unfortunately.

  2. Interesting.  So is that one of the wild wheat grasses, or is it one of the ones Wes Jackson has been breeding for the last decade or two?  If it’s the latter, we’re seeing half the story here, and perhaps the less interesting half.

    1. This is from the work of Wes Jackson & the Land Institute. Glover worked there previously. The Land Institute is doing remarkable work, trying to create perennial grain crops (not through genetic engineering). If they are successful, it could revolutionize agriculture–massively reducing soil erosion, water inputs, etc.

      Wes, BTW, is a brilliant thinker and hysterically funny.

  3. This is far from news, folks. Last century’s biggest environmental disaster in America was exactly this. Millions of acres of grassland full of buffalo; 10 years of rabid hunting to extinction, not for food but to drive the American Indians out (kill the buffalo, and you’ve killed their way of life.) Then, several decades of frustrated cowboys trying to get cows to survive the harsh climates that buffalo evolved to survive. That doesn’t work, so the US Government comes up with wheat growing as the new solution; not perennial wheat as pictured above- this takes a long time to establish. Rhe perennial plants that were there, namely grass, had the same long root structure as the photo above that kept them alive in the winter- so that the following  year, grass would re-appear again for the buffalo to graze on. But now, there’s no buffalo, and cows aren’t doing the trick, so American farmers start tearing up the topsoil to plant wheat. WWI kicks in, demand for wheat booms, and everyone is making a killing, building cities in the middle of deserts, moving out west, no problem. Everyone owns a car, nice clothes, the like.

    Wall Street crashes, and a couple of years later, the West feels the impact: wheat prices crash as well. Soon, they’re not even breaking even because of the overproduction they established during the war years – high supply, low demand. Overnight, all the greedy “fly by night farmers” go home, leaving behind miles and miles of uncultivated wheat fields. Years of tillage has destroyed the topsoil, and no one is there to tend the land. A drought kicks in, nothing new to that area of the country, and all of a sudden, the normal winds are now blowing tons of loose top-soil all over, causing a long list of problems you wouldn’t believe. Enter, the Dust Bowl Era. Read more about it in the amazing book, “The Worst Hard Time,” which is where I learned all of this stuff… and realized that we’ve learned nothing out of the harshest lesson we were given in the 1900’s. It’s a complete precursor to “global warming.”

      1. There’s always the library, my friend! 18 bucks for a book is a lot of do-re-mi!

        But I will say, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, history-wise. He spoke to a ton of people that were there, and makes you feel like you were there, too…

        1. I live in Jersey City, where the only thing worse than the public library book buying budget is the corruption of the mayor and the entire civic administration.

          It goes like this, they mayor’s need for a new car trumps the needs of poor kids to read. You don’t like it, the cops are crooked too.

  4. I’m pretty sure that’s actually one of the dreadlocks from this dude who sells bongs at Venice Beach.

  5. I have to call shenanigans on this, these roots were clearly grown hydroponically, probably using an accelerant like napthalene acetic acid,  roots this long are common in any plant grown in a deep water culture,  this would not be seen in nature/

    1. Not true. Praire grasses and plants typically grow roots 8-15 feet deep. The fact that this did this for thousands of years is why the soil is so fertile in many of the places we now farm.

      1. Thank you for your reply but if you do a little research I think you will find that root masses don’t usually exceed foliage mass to such a degree, except in extreme situations, for example extreme aridity.  In those cases a ratio of well over 100 to 1 is possible, but unlikely,  plants need to be efficient in their biome’s otherwise they are out competed by other species

        1. What about Veteveria zizanoides? It has a root system of about 6 meters iirc. It is planted all around the world for slope stabilization and perfume.

          Root systems that large are uncommon but some plants do sport them.

          1. Yes, vetiver grass has a very deep root system (hence the awesome ability to stabilize slopes, dam walls etc.) I’ve seen it in action (and planted a fair bit of it myself). Fantastic stuff.

        2. Thank you for your reply but if you do a little research I think you will find…

          Dude, under the he-who-smelt-it-dealt-it doctrine, he who called shenanigans is supposed to provide the citations to bolster his claim.

        3. You mean in places like…. the great dry plains of the world?

          You seem to be implying that what happens in nature is totally against your experience, and therefore is unnatural.

          In most environments, ones without destructive overwatering and chemical fertilizers, these are the only plants that CAN compete.

          And they can feed us. So?

    2. Native prairie perennial grasses produce just such root systems without intervention.   Taking a backhoe, shovel, and brush to an established stand of big bluestem or Indian grass will disclose this kind of root development wherever the soil is deep enough and rain uncertain.
      See the cultivar-development work of The Land Institute for information somewhat more reliable than Andrew’s opinion.

    3. Dude – I’m with Antinous.  You need to back you claim.  Annual wheat doesn’t stand a chance in hell of developing a root system like like this.  But perennial wheat is different. Compare it to a major invasive range-land species like leafy-spurge (Euphorbia esula) which can have a  seven meter root span (  The perennial wheat root system in this article- even if it was grown hydroponically for a demonstration – doesn’t seem impractical.Range/Soil MS classes for everyone.

    4. these roots were clearly grown hydroponically

      You’ve clearly never seen a record-breaking drainpipe-grown carrot.

      This root length business is a bit of a sideshow- you don’t need 4-metre long roots to stabilise even very deep soils; reducing ploughing and not leaving the soil bare for long periods would be a start.

      1. In case anyone decides not to check out this link, here’s a photo of Mark Frauenfelder (aged 15 yrs):

    5. Andrew, I’ve BEEN to The Land Institute (where Jerry Glover works) several times and every year at The Prairie Festival they dig a big hole or two with tractors that allow guests to walk down into those holes (or up to the edge) and view those massively long roots for themselves.  They don’t HAVE hydroponic systems anywhere at The Land Institute.  They have several greenhouses–all open for public tour during the Festival–but nothing is grown hydroponically. 

  6. Ironically corn wouldn’t be the ridiculously over-subsidized, under-regulated, environmentally catastrophic beast it is today if our election system didn’t make Iowa into such a politically crucial state. Maybe the topsoil loss is a form of Karmic retribution.

    1. It’s absolutely incredible the far-reaching repercussions of making one state the first vote in parties’ internal primary elections.

      I’ve never understood the logic of not simply having all primary votes on the same day. Except I guess it saves candidates money because they can be strategic about their spending.

      Oh. Right. It comes down to the money in the pockets of politicians. What else is new?

  7. Monsanto will make sure that this guy and his perennial plants get buried in Roundup™.

    This isn’t so much a show-and-tell as it is a suicide note.

  8. If you want to find out more about modern dwarf wheat and it’s health effects read this:

  9. Sorry to curb your enthusiasm, but perennial wheat has a yield of about 400kg per hectare on the field, a far cry from the 2,400-10,000 kg per hectare for normal wheat (depending on conditions). Those huge roots being part of the reason why the yields are so bad.

    Sorry, but we can’t increase worldwide acreage of wheat to be five to ten times the current numbers, because we only have one planet.

  10. I, for one, am just glad that’s not an exhibit from the Museum Of Things That People Pulled Out Of Their Noses.

  11. I’m sorry you didn’t find that helpful antinous,   but  this very question of how much root mass to vegetative growth is of great intrest to anyone in the hydroponic community, potting soils, and soilless mediums can run up to 30$ a bag. No one wants to waste money on container volumes they don’t need.  All I was pointing out was that the root system that guy was showing in the pic, probably wasn’t taken from a natural environment , and was most likely achieved through artificial means, like it was grown hydroponically

    1. That doesn’t look implausible to me at all. The Manitoba Museum (in Winnipeg, where I grew up) has a display showing prairie grass and a root system not that different from the illustration above. See

  12. The thing about that kind of root system though, is it takes hundreds if not thousands of years to develop. Midwest prairies are rich because of this undisturbed development, but in the relative scheme of time, a few thousand years is just a blip. We’ve managed to do away with that progress in a matter of decades. It’s sad. 

    1. On the plus side we didn’t suffer a world wide malthusian crisis in the late 19th century, so there’s that.

    2. What, that plant is a thousand years old? I’m guessing you actually meant that it takes a thousand years to make that depth of topsoil in which a plant can grow roots that deep. I will refer you to the work of Yeoman and the keyline plowing system he developed that shows that topsoil can be created much more quickly than that.

  13. Perennial crops is probably the only viable solution in the long term. Obviously if we want to keep our current yield and make all plants perennial we will have to make use of GM technology.

    I hope one day anti-GM environmentalists will realize that if we want to get out of the current artificial and destructive agriculture (yes, “biological” too), this is the only way to go.

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