Friday, January 11, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Baby roots and grown up roots

I guess they’re like baby teeth and grown up teeth. But a little different. Here’s my experience so far. When you get an orchid from a grower, it’s been nurtured in a certain environment. The green part of the plant functions primarily to photosynthesize and produce flowers, and to a lesser extent to absorb nutrients. It is also a kind of cell-making factory. Its meristem (a kind of stem-cell tissue) functions to produce and differentiate all kinds of new cells- whatever the plant needs, based on the environment and resource availability.

The roots have a slightly less varied role. They absorb water and nutrients. Some can also do photosynthesis. They may also anchor the plant to its substrate. There are also some meristem areas in the root but they only produce more root cells.

The same as with “regular” plants, the leaves and stems are more in contact with vagaries of the environment such as changes in light, humidity, temperature, and wind. If the plants have been grown semi-hydroponically then the roots are accustomed to a much more circumscribed environment. Pretty much constant humidity, temperatures, and nutrient levels.

When you take these beautiful and tender babies out of their wrapping and put them up in a tree you are changing their universe. Root systems that were pampered in a semi-closed environment are asked suddenly to deal with heat, drought, light, etc. you can mist them all you want but you have yanked them out of their controlled environment into a world of unknowns.

So. Tender roots may absorb some of the water and nutrients you provide them but they are not built to experience these conditions. I don’t know much about their cellular anatomy. I do know about the velamen, which absorbs water and nutrients, encourages symbiotic microbial interactions, and protects the inner root. But I suspect that this tissue is compromised when plants from the grower are put outside. Bottom line is at best, the roots will be less efficient and at worst they may fade and die over time.

But plants are amazingly economical machines. One part dies but its resources are reworked through the system, recycled to other parts of the plant body. So in the new orchid that’s outside for the first time a kind of regeneration takes place. The meristem tissue is in charge of this regenerative activity.

The “baby” roots are recycled through the plant, which manufactures “grown up” roots that are adapted anatomically, chemically, and functionally to the new, harsher environment. I know this isn’t the official definition for “hardening up” but I know it’s vital for an orchid that will make its way outdoors as an epiphyte.

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