What Happens if a Plant Doesn’t Have Any Roots?

Roots are one of the most essential parts of a plant. They serve many functions to keep the plant healthy and ensure its growth, but what happens if a plant doesn’t have any roots? 

A vascular plant that doesn’t have any roots will die. Roots are the structure through which vascular plants gain water, minerals, and nutrients from the soil. On the other hand, non-vascular plants don’t need roots to thrive.

In this article, I’ll explore why roots are essential to plants’ health and survival and look at some plants that don’t have roots but manage to survive in other ways. Read on to learn more!

Why Plants Need Roots

Without roots, many plants won’t be able to survive. Roots are the most critical part of vascular plants, which have root systems, stems, and leaves for water and nutrient transport.

The root system has many essential functions for the plant, including the following:

Drawing Water, Nutrients, and Minerals From the Environment

Pulling these from the environment ensures the plant can grow, and it’s why roots grow down into the earth. It enables them to absorb more minerals and water from the soil (assuming it’s not a species of plant that can grow without soil).

Supporting the Plants by Keeping Them Stable

When plants are securely lodged into the ground, they can withstand harsh elements, such as strong winds and pelting rain. 

Preventing Soil Erosion

Roots help prevent erosion by holding the soil securely so it can’t be blown away. Plants also prevent the impact of rain on the soil, ensuring that it doesn’t wash away or erode.

Having a Symbiotic Relationship With Mycorrhizal Fungi

The fungi provide minerals from the soil in exchange for a supply of carbohydrates from the plant. 

Storing Extra Food for Plants in the Form of Starch

If a plant has produced too much glucose, this sugar gets converted into starch and then stored by the roots, where it provides long-term food and energy for the plant.

Creating Water Channels

Since roots penetrate the ground, they produce channels for water to seep into the soil and become available to plants. 

Preventing Soil Blockages

Strong vertical roots push deep into the ground. They are capable of driving past hardpans that could block or stunt plant growth.

Preventing Pathogens

When they grow, roots produce compounds that they release into the soil to inhibit the growth of pathogens.  

Symptoms of Root Damage

Without roots, plants won’t be able to complete a range of important functions. They’ll die quickly. This is why when your plant suffers extensive root rot, it usually doesn’t survive. If the root system has become soft and mushy, you won’t be able to rescue the plant.

When roots are severely damaged, plants won’t be anchored into the soil or get enough nutrients that they need for growth.

You’ll soon see warning signs that your plant is dying, such as: 

  • Its leaves are dropping off. 
  • Its growth is stunted
  • Its leaves are changing color, such as becoming yellow and brown.
  • Its roots are smelly.
  • Its stems are brittle instead of pliable. 

Non-Vascular Plants Don’t Have Roots

Even though roots are vital to the health of plants, not all plants have or need roots

Plants that have roots are flowering plants and vascular plants. They have defined roots that contain a root cap, which protects the top of the root when it grows. 

By comparison, plants that don’t have roots are called nonvascular plants. They include moss and liverworts. Without roots, they don’t have the ability to draw water and nutrients from the environment. Instead, they have hair-like rhizoids to transport water to the plant, but these are not specialized roots. 

Therefore, plants without roots will be located in damp, moist environments as they don’t have the developed root system to absorb water from the soil and transport it throughout the plant. 

Types of Root Systems and How They Work

Plants can survive without some roots, but that depends on what type of roots have been damaged.

Let’s explore two common kinds of root systems: taproots and fibrous roots. 

Taproot System 

Taproots are thick, strong roots. They have other roots that grow out from their sides. These roots are strong enough to go as deep into the ground as 200 feet (60 meters). This enables them to reach deep sources of water, and they also store food so that the plant can survive periods of environmental stress, such as drought. 

Plants that have taproot systems include:

  • Carrot
  • Parsnip
  • Beetroot
  • Poppy mallow plants

Fibrous Root System 

These systems consist of small, fibrous roots without any primary roots. They look like a dense network of roots and can be found in the first few inches (approximately 6 cm) of your soil. 

These thin roots help the plant to increase its surface area for absorbing minerals and water from the soil. They also draw fertilizer ingredients from the soil more effectively than taproot systems. These roots aren’t strong enough to anchor the plant, though. 

Plants with fibrous root systems include:

  • Wheat
  • Rice
  • Banana
  • Marigold plants.

One of the pitfalls of these roots is that they can’t store food for the plant, and they don’t perform effectively if the plant is in drought conditions. 

Other Types of Roots

There are also feeder and anchoring roots that have special features to benefit plants:

Feeder Roots 

Feeder roots are narrow roots that grow vertically and horizontally. They absorb nutrients and moisture from the soil, and since they grow in both directions, they make it easier for the plant to gain the substances they need to grow. 

Feeder roots have root hairs that also help with moisture and mineral absorption. If some of the plant’s feeder roots are damaged, this won’t kill the plant right away because these structures regenerate. 

Most feeder roots are located within the top six inches (15 cm) of soil, so if they become damaged, their uptake of nutrients is restricted. 

Anchoring Roots 

Anchoring roots are wide roots that grow at the stem or trunk base of the plant, and they are commonly found in large plants. If some of these roots become damaged, the plant will take longer to recover. If there’s extensive damage, this will decrease the plant’s lifespan. This is especially the case for trees, as they rely on large roots for stability. 

Generally, most plants will recover from damage to their roots if it isn’t larger than a quarter of their total root zone, according to the University of Maryland.

How to Ensure Strong, Healthy Plant Roots

If you recently planted new plants in your garden, you might wonder why they’re not surviving.

Here are some essential tips to prevent your plants from getting root damage and dying:

Water Newly-Established Plants More Regularly

After putting plants into the ground, make sure that you keep their roots moist for the first few months of their growth. This helps the roots to grow and develop deeper into the ground to draw water from the soil. 

Don’t Plant Too Deeply Into the Ground

Planting too deeply can cause them to suffocate, so they won’t be able to draw oxygen and moisture from the soil. To ensure that your plants aren’t planted too deeply, check the top of the root ball. If you have to dig deeper than two or three inches (approximately 5-8 cm) beneath the soil surface, the plant is too deep. 

Be Careful When Planting Plants With Tap Roots

Plants with tap roots are trickier to transplant than those that have fibrous root systems. You need to take extra care to prevent damage to the tap root. Check for offshoots near the crown, as cutting these enables you to replant the plant effectively and with minimal damage to the plant. 

Water the Root Zone

When looking after plants with taproot systems, make sure you water them regularly and focus on their root zone. This is the area of oxygen and dirt around the roots. Give a thorough watering each time to ensure that the water reaches all the way into the soil where the root hairs are located. 

Look After Shallow Fibrous Roots

You can look after shallow fibrous roots by watering the root zone regularly but without a lot of water. When watering plants with fibrous roots, you don’t need to soak the soil deeply as the roots don’t run deep into the soil. 

Use Root-Promoting Fertilizers

While you might want to boost the growth of your plant with healthy fertilizers, these can also benefit your plant’s roots. Phosphorus-rich fertilizers encourage root growth. They also correct nitrogen levels that are too high, which can damage roots. 

What do you know about vascular and nonvascular plant growth? Which type grows taller? Click on the link to find out the answer: Do Vascular Plants Grow Taller Than Nonvascular?

Final Thoughts 

Roots are an essential part of plant anatomy, so it’s important to keep your plant’s roots healthy. Without healthy roots, plants will battle to survive and die.

Roots have many essential functions for plants, such as: 

  • Anchoring the plant
  • Drawing moisture and nutrients from the soil
  • Preventing soil erosion
  • Storing extra food in the form of starch
  • Reducing soil pathogens

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the founder of TheGrowingLeaf.com and its lead content writer. He created the website in 2022 as a resource for horticulture lovers and beginners alike, compiling all the gardening tips he discovered over the years. Alex has a passion for caring for plants, turning backyards into feel-good places, and sharing his knowledge with the rest of the world.

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