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Down in the Dirt

Over the last month in Alberta we have seen very little rain which isn't all that abnormal for us but how on earth are plants able to survive this drought? As we are hearing, many farmers have had to already call a loss on their crops this year. A big reason behind that is because those crops are not native. Those crops did not evolve in our ecosystem and are therefore not adapted to our conditions. But wait, some of those crops evolved in pretty dry climates, they should be able to survive right? Well being drought tolerant in one place does not actually mean being drought tolerant in another. Why? Because there are a few different ways that plants withstand hot, dry conditions and not all of it is up to the plant itself. While those plants that have deep taproots have the ability to reach deeper into the water table and those with shallow roots can take advantage of even the smallest amount of rainfall, that often is not enough. Sometimes we need a little help from our friends. Wait, plants have friends? Yes!! One of the best kept secrets of healthy ecosystems until relatively recently has been the underground network that plants share with mycorrhizae. Myco what? Mycorrhizae is a fancy name for the mutually beneficial or symbiotic relationship that a fungus has with a plant. We often hear of fungal diseases on plants but at least 80% of plants also have healthy relationships with fungus underground as well. The way the fungi connects with a plant may be on the outside of the root as is the case with many trees including birch and pine, or it may live inside the plants roots as is the case with many flowering plants. There is no hard and fast rule though so don't try putting it into simple categories!

How does it work? A fungus grows under the ground and is therefore is unable to photosynthesize and create its own food the way a plant does so the fungus acquires nutrients from the plant in the form of sugars and in return the fungus helps the plant enhance other nutrients it needs like nitrogen or phosphorus. They also help the plant increase its root growth as well as in many cases connect with other plants. Not only can it help distribute nutrients between different plants (not even just within species but between them too 🤯) but by helping the plant grow its roots and transferring water from within the underground network, these fungi can help plants weather drought conditions better than plants without. There are literally thousands of different fungi that have been found to associate with plants in this way and one plant can have relationships with multiple species as well. When you see those so called fairy rings after a good rain, those are the fruiting bodies of fungi that often are working with your trees!

Photo credit: Wally Eberhart/Getty Images

As you can imagine, these are relationships that have developed over many years, in some cases millennia so plants that are not native to this area are unlikely to benefit from mycorrhizae without a little supplemental help. Having said that, not all soils will necessarily have the fungi that a native plant needs because not all native plants grow in all parts of the province. You can supplement your soil with fungal products on the market to help native plants grow in your yard. As there are so many different kinds of associations and there isn't a blanket product out there, there is no guarantee that a healthy relationship will be established but if it is, you will have the happiest garden around!

If you want to learn more about mycorrhizae, in particular in trees, I highly recommend reading Suzanne Simard's new book "Finding the Mother Tree". It will blow your mind and give you a new respect for nature!

Photo Credit: Irina Vinnikova/Shutterstock

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