Rhizomes are not roots. They are often confused with one another because they both grow underground and can sprout new plants, but rhizomes have a much more complicated structure.

In this blog, we explore the similarities between roots and rhizomes whilst identifying their noticeable differences too.

What are rhizomes and roots?

Rhizomes are underground stems that can grow horizontally, pushing up new shoots. Roots are underground stems that usually only grow vertically, sending out roots from the stem to find water and nutrients.

Some plants have rhizomes while others have roots. For example, ginger has rhizomes but potatoes have roots. Rhizomes provide a greater surface area for absorbing water and nutrients than would be possible with just one vertical root system. This helps these plants survive in their environments even when conditions are not ideal or food is scarce. This is why these plants are able to grow in areas with little rainfall.

Rhizomes also help plants spread. Some rhizomes produce shoots above the ground, which can take root and develop into new plants as they drop off from the parent plant or as animals disperse them. Other rhizomes stay underground and send out roots that develop into new plants.

Differences between roots and rhizomes

Roots and rhizomes are both underground plant parts that help a plant grow. However, they serve different purposes and have different characteristics.

Roots are the part of the plant that anchors it to the ground and absorbs water and minerals from the soil. Rhizomes, on the other hand, are horizontal stems that run just below the surface of the soil. They mainly function as storage organs, but they can also produce new shoots and roots.

Although most people think of bamboo as a plant with woody, above-ground stems, all types of bamboo actually consist of many interconnected rhizomes. These underground stems look like roots but are much bigger and thicker. The thick rhizomes form the familiar canes that we see above ground growing up to heights of 30 meters (98 feet).

People use rhizomes to propagate plants too. When you divide a plant into two or more pieces, each piece will contain an intact rhizome that can develop into a new plant. For example, if you cut the stem of a basil (Ocimum basilicum) plant and replant it, it will usually grow roots and form a new plant.

In bamboo, it’s possible for a single rhizome to grow dozens of connected plants. In this case, the “clone” is not genetically identical to the original plant. Each rhizome is capable of growing its own root system and producing whole new shoots with leaves and roots. However, all these shoots share a single root system and will produce fruit at about the same time.

Roots extend as long individual stems - rhizomes
Roots extend as long individual stems deep below the surface

Differences in appearances of rhizomes and roots

Rhizomes and roots can be very different, but they do have one thing in common: they both provide stability and support to plants.

Rhizomes are horizontal stems that grow underground and spread outwards. Roots grow downwards from the plant stem or trunk. The main difference between rhizomes and roots is that rhizomes branch out horizontally while root tendrils go down vertically. Rhizomes also typically store food for the plant whereas roots don’t usually contain any stored food.

Most plants only have a single root system so it is not too difficult to identify them as either having rhizome systems or root systems by their growth patterns alone. But there are some exceptions, like vines which often have both types of growth patterns.

Rhizomes have nodes and internodes, which differ in size and length depending on the plant species, while roots only have nodes. So what’s the difference? As it turns out, there is a lot of variation between these two structures.

How plants differ between having roots or rhizomes

While many different types of plants have both rhizomes and roots, some only have either one type or the other. For example, ferns have rhizomes but no roots. These are sometimes called rootless ferns because they don’t have any visible roots. Many types of grasses also have rhizome systems but no visible roots.

A more obvious difference between a plant’s roots and its rhizomes is the type of soil or substrate that each one prefers. Roots tend to grow best in moist, nutrient-rich soil whereas plants with rhizomes spread best in infertile or nutrient-poor substrates that are well aerated.

Rhizomes have many shoots attached them and grow horizontal as well as vertical
Rhizomes have many shoots attached to them and grow horizontal as well as vertical

Roots are much shorter than rhizomes

Roots are much shorter than rhizomes. This means that they cannot travel as far as rhizomes can, and also that they are not able to take in as much water and nutrients.

This makes them less efficient at acquiring resources for the plant than rhizomes are. Rhizomes are usually found at or near the surface of the soil, but roots can be deep under the ground.

Roots are much thicker than rhizomes

Roots are much thicker than rhizomes. This is because they have to support the plant and send nutrients up to the leaves. Rhizomes are thin and spread out, which is why they can grow quickly. They are also above ground. A rhizome, on the other hand, is covered by soil and runs horizontally along or just under the surface of the earth.

New roots develop as the shoots travel up towards the surface. They form at little swellings on the rhizome, which is why you usually see a clump of new shoots emerge from the same general area – they are all attached to one another, and it’s just that some have travelled a little further than others.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, rhizomes and roots are two different types of plant growth structures. Rhizomes grow horizontally underground while roots grow vertically in the soil above ground. However, they both serve similar purposes for a plant’s survival because they help it absorb water and nutrients from the earth. With this information, you can better understand how to care for plants with either type of structure.

Want to know more about rhizomes and roots?

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