How deep do they go?

Did you know that butterfly milkweed's roots grow up to 12 feet deep, about the height of an African elephant?

butterfly milkweed root drawing

We look at prairie plants and can hardly imagine the amazing root systems that are growing beneath our feet. Those roots help to draw water down into the watershed, which cleans it before it enters our lakes. Those roots also help the plant find enough water in droughts and keep them alive when the tops burn during prairie fires. Those deep roots make our native plants the strongest and healthiest options out there.

So just how deep are some of these plants roots?

A compass plant's roots reach up to 15 feet below the surface, that's three Kourtney Kardashians standing on top of each other.

Photo of a compass plant rootopens IMAGE file

Pale purple coneflower roots grow up to 5 feet in depth, the same as 8 pencils standing end to end.

Indian grass grows 9-foot roots, about the size of three single mattresses laid side to side.

Photo of Indian grass root designopens IMAGE file

Little Bluestem has a 6-foot root system, the same thickness of a stack of 18,000 sheets of paper.

See what below the surface with the Prairie Roots exhibit inside the Dickinson County Nature Center, and then try out the challenge below.

Photo of prairie roots exhibitopens IMAGE file

Measuring Roots

Measure out lines of 6 feet, 12 feet and 15 feet on the floor, representing different depths of prairie roots. Have your children lay down on the floor next to the lines to see how many of them it takes to reach the bottom of the root.

Photo of Teddy the turtle by a ruleropens IMAGE file

Teddy the turtle's shell is about 4 inches long, the same as lawn grass roots in Iowa when we plant exotic species such as Kentucky bluegrass. Plant natives and your grass will grow better roots!


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