Plants that Root for You!

picture of Amsonia

From bald eagles to pelicans, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area located in Columbia, Missouri, is a haven for many of Missouri’s waterfowl.

By Abby Lapides

[This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of The Gateway Gardener.]

From bald eagles to pelicans, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area located in Columbia, Missouri, is a haven for many of Missouri’s waterfowl. Eagle Bluffs not only provides a home to these birds, it also is part of the wastewater treatment process of Columbia. Through constructed wetlands, the roots and stems of many plants help clean wastewater and slowly bring the water back into the watershed. This is just one of the many powers of the underside of plants. Here are few ways to use plants’ roots for your home benefit.

Help Dry a Basement

With the heavy rains St. Louis experienced, many of us have had the not-so-joyful experience of a wet basement. Planting shrubs in the lower areas around foundations can sometimes solve these water problems. I recommend planting shrubs that can tolerate being flooded like a buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) or smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). Other times a more strategic approach may be needed through the creation of a rain garden or bioswale to cure a wet basement. Rain gardens and bioswales collect a large amount of water and then let it slowly percolate into the ground. One of my favorite rain garden plants is blue star (Amsonia spp.), as they put on a great show for much of the year with beautiful blue flowers in spring and golden yellow foliage in summer and fall. These beauties are tough and can tolerate wetness or drought once established.

Storm Water Management for Sewer Systems

Roots are so important to storm water management the Missouri Sewer Departments (MSD) wants to give you money to plant a garden. If you live in the Mississippi River or River Des Peres watershed you are eligible for a grant worth up to $4,000 to plant gardens around your property through Project Clear. Our sewer systems become overloaded with water after heavy rains, which cause many headaches for MSD. Replacing turf grass or impervious surfaces with rain gardens, native gardens and other mechanisms help keep storm water out of the sewers. Roots and the fauna they support aerate soil making it easier for water to sink into the ground rather than running off to the sewer. For more information visit

Erosion Control

A picture of purple poppy mallow

Purple poppy mallow, photo by Robert Weaver

Adding plants to eroding spots helps stabilize the area. I prefer planting groundcovers on slopes as they cover a lot of ground quickly (go figure) and their shorter size tends to look nice on slopes. Purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe) features bright magenta flowers on sprawling stems with interesting deeply cut leaves. This tough plant has a large root system that spreads deep into the ground providing a strong foundation to keep the plant—and your soil—where it belongs. For a shady slope try bugle weed (Ajuga) ‘Burgundy Glow’, whose blue flowers and showy foliage create a splash.


A picture of buttonbush

Buttonbush, photo by Robert Weaver

With the acceleration of global warming, ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere are important considerations. Plants absorb carbon and store it in their roots, stems, trunks and leaves. Prairie plants have extremely large root systems that can sometimes be 5 times the size of the actual plant, storing a lot of carbon below ground. Some with the largest root systems are big bluestem (Andropogo gerardii), blazing stars (Liatris spp.), wild indigo (Baptisia australis) and compass plant (Silphium laciniatum).

When planting, be sure to give the roots a happy home. Amend with compost and add a starter fertilizer that has beneficial bacteria and fungus to help get the roots settled in quicker. Because of the large root system of many of the plants mentioned above these plants can be difficult to move once established, think carefully about layout before planting.

Abby Lapides is owner and a speaker at Sugar Creek Gardens Nursery in Kirkwood, Missouri. She has degrees from the University of Missouri, and is a member of the Landscape and Nursery Association of Greater St. Louis.