Plant Roots Can Be Thousands of Miles Long

by | Apr 14, 2022


A previous IFOD covered the Coastline Paradox — the notion that you can’t really know the length of a border or coastline. That’s because the size of the ruler you’re using matters: as the size of one’s ruler gets smaller, the length of the coastline or border gets exponentially longer. This leads to the flummoxing conclusion that the length of a border or coastline is not an objective, fixed distance but rather is of indeterminate length not capable of being known except with reference to the scale of the resolution of the measuring.


This measurement problem exists with respect to most things in nature — measurements vary depending on how precise your ruler is because natural things don’t come in neat Euclidian shapes like squares and circles. Think about a house vs. a cave. It wouldn’t be too hard to figure out the exact volume of your house given its neat shapes and right-angle corners. Compare that to the near impossibility of determining the exact volume of a cave with its uneven surfaces, crevices, stalagmites, and stalactites.

Another great example of how hard it is to measure natural things is plant roots. Because of all the branching off into smaller and smaller roots, knowing the length of a root is problematic. Here’s what Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird had to say about this point in their classic work The Secret Life of Plants:

No one has yet counted the roots of a tree, but a study of a single rye plant indicates a total of over 13 million rootlets with a combined length of 380 miles. On these rootlets of a rye plant are fine root hairs estimated to number some 14 billion with a total length of 6,600 miles, almost the distance from pole to pole.

Wowzers. Nature is amazing and much more complex than we realize.


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