Root systems of some Chihuahuan Desert plants

TitleRoot systems of some Chihuahuan Desert plants
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2001
AuthorsGibbens, Robert P., Lenz J.M.
JournalJournal of Arid Environments
Date PublishedOctober 1, 2001
ARIS Log Number118768
KeywordsChihuahuan Desert, competition, forbs, grasses, Jornada, root systems, shrubs, soil resources
AbstractRoot systems of 11 shrub or shrub-like species, 11 grass species, 19 perennial forb species and 4 annual forb species were excavated on the Jornada Experimental Range in the northern Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico, USA. Maximum radial horizontal spread of shrub root systems usually occurred above calcic and petrocalcic horizons at depths above 1 m. .With one exception, all shrub species roots were traced through calcic and petrocalcic horizons to depths down to 5 m. Upward growing roots reaching very shallow depths (< 10 cm) were common for most shrub species. Thus, the shrubs can readily access soil water and nutrients from both surface and deep soil horizons. Grass root systems on sandy soils extended radially up to 1.4 m, perhaps an adaptation to capture more soil water from the frequent small rainfall events. Grass roots did not extend through calcic or petrocalcic horizons and none penetrated deeper than 1.6 m. Perennial forb root systems varied in depth of branching but often penetrated into o through calcic and petrocalcic horizons and, like shrubs, have an advantage over grasses during droughts. Root systems of the annual forbs, excavated at the end of a season of above average precipitation, reached depths of 0.5 to 1.2 m. At each of the 18 excavation sites the roots of all the plant life forms were highly intermingled in the upper soil horizons, indicating that competition for water and soil nutrients is intense. It is believed that the plasticity and architecture of the shrub root systems, enabling them to compete with the grasses for soil water in the upper soil horizons and also access soil water at depths beyond the reach of grass roots, has been a major reason for the increase of shrubs during the historical period in this arid environment.