Rooting depths, lateral root spreads and below-ground/above-ground allometries of plants in water-limited ecosystems


  • H. Jochen Schenk,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biology and Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA
    • Present address and correspondence: H. Jochen Schenk, Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, AHF 232, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089–0371, USA (tel. 213 821–2285; fax (213) 740–6720; e-mail

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  • Robert B. Jackson

    1. Department of Biology and Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA
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  • 1 In water-limited environments, the availability of water and nutrients to plants depends on environmental conditions, sizes and shapes of their root systems, and root competition. The goal of this study was to predict root system sizes and shapes for different plant growth forms using data on above-ground plant sizes, climate and soil texture.
  • 2 A new data set of > 1300 records of root system sizes for individual plants was collected from the literature for deserts, scrublands, grasslands and savannas with ≤ 1000 mm mean annual precipitation (MAP). Maximum rooting depths, maximum lateral root spreads and their ratios were measured.
  • 3 Root system sizes differed among growth forms and increased with above-ground size: annuals < perennial forbs = grasses < semi-shrubs < shrubs < trees. Stem succulents were as shallowly rooted as annuals but had lateral root spreads similar to shrubs.
  • 4 Absolute rooting depths increased with MAP in all growth forms except shrubs and trees, but were not strongly related to potential evapotranspiration (PET). Except in trees, root systems tended to be shallower and wider in dry and hot climates and deeper and narrower in cold and wet climates. Shrubs were more shallowly rooted under climates with summer than winter precipitation regimes.
  • 5 Relative to above-ground plant sizes, root system sizes decreased with increasing PET for all growth forms, but decreased with increasing MAP only for herbaceous plants. Thus relative rooting depths tended to increase with aridity, although absolute rooting depths decreased with aridity.
  • 6 Using an independent data set of 20 test locations, rooting depths were predicted from MAP using regression models for three broad growth forms. The models succeeded in explaining 62% of the observed variance in median rooting depths.
  • 7 Based on the data analysed here, Walter’s two-layer model of soil depth partitioning between woody and herbaceous plants appears to be most appropriate in drier regimes (< 500 mm MAP) and in systems with substantial winter precipitation.