Curtis Lubbe: Going Belowground in Central European Meadows

Curtis Lubbe: Going Belowground in Central European Meadows

In our latest post, Curtis Lubbe – a researcher at the Institute of Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences – discusses the fascinating subterranean world of roots, the diversity of plant forms and species in meadows, and what the future in this field may bring.


I am completely fascinated by the variety of subterranean plant organs and their traits, especially those involved in storage, movement, and stress mediation.  I have an arts background, so the knobbly, creeping, or chunky belowground structures satisfy my aesthetic needs, while digging and taking plants from soil satisfies my needs to work with my hands and make a mess!

I first encountered many European meadow species during my master’s work studying lawns and urban greenspaces and was really excited by the diversity, complex coexistence, and links to the management or abiotic conditions of each space.  Meadows (and other managed greenspaces) are great to study because they are generally close to home, so I can visit them (and often many of them) with some frequency, to really see their growth and dynamics all through the year.  Meadows can also have incredible variety in forms and belowground storage organ types and traits – a single square metre can contain plants with bodies radically different from one another. 

A calm summer meadow view in the White Carpathians (photo by Alena Bartušková)

The belowground storage organs of herbs are really the bodies of these plants, they mediate and fuel seasonal growth, response to disturbance and stress, and belowground growth and spread.  These structures are so important for plant life, but they are hidden from our view.  There is so much we do not know about the belowground lives of plants, so the diversity and relatively easy access of meadows make them great for asking questions about storage organs and plant strategies. 

A close-up view of some typical meadow plants (Credit: Alena Bartušková).

Where in the world are you?

I work and live in the Czech Republic and am surrounded by meadows.  Herbaceous plants only dominate when taller and more robust woody plants are in some way discouraged and there are many kinds of open and herb-dominated ecosystems and habitats.  Meadows are grasslands that undergo a consistent but relatively low-frequency disturbance regime (either mowing or grazing) maintained and managed by humans for a purpose (such as hay production or more aesthetically for flowers).  These meadows may seem relatively mild and do not endure the intense and dramatic conditions of many other herb-dominated systems, but they are still rich, diverse, and fascinating.

Variation in lateral spread, portrayed in a style inspired by the ‘blue onion’ design of Central Euopean tableware (F. C. Lubbe).

The plants that grow here in meadows are generally herbaceous perennial species and use a variety of belowground storage organs (especially rhizomes) to store resources for seasonal dormancy but also for regrowth after disturbances or to mitigate various stresses.  These plants face drought, flood, disturbance (such as mowing), herbivory, and freezing during their typical year.  None of these stresses are typically severe, but because of the wide range of stresses that could occur at any time, these plants need to be ready for pretty much anything. 

The belowground storage organs that enable survival in such a chaotic system are equally diverse. Some meadow plants have long and thin rhizomes, others are short and fat.  Many rhizomatous species use roots to alter their location in the soil (contractile roots) or to supplement their carbohydrate and water storage (root tubers).  There are also non-clonal taprooted species and other plants that grow nearly entirely from roots that can fragment and sprout (rootsprouters), as well as the occasional bulb or stem tuber.  Even other plants keep their storage just above the soil surface in stolons.

Clonal and non-clonal plants together, portrayed in a style inspired by the ‘blue onion’ designs of Central European tableware (F. C. Lubbe).

A stylized rootsprouter, style inspired by the ‘blue onion’ designs of Central European tableware (F. C. Lubbe).

A happy rhizome from a species of Geum, representative of some of what we see in meadows (Credit: F. C. Lubbe).

We work on a variety of topics, trying to understand all we can about the role of belowground organs in plant life.  This can mean using these plants and their traits as part of larger datasets, such as our previous study comparing plant size (as volume) and morphological traits along habitat preference gradients (for variables such as moisture, nutrients, and disturbance frequency and severity; Bartušková et al., 2022).  We also do targeted studies with plants collected from the field, such as a recent study investigating the role of rhizomes and their carbohydrate storage in response to drought (Lubbe et al., 2023).  This study was especially interesting because we had intended to investigate senescence of rhizomes but instead found the rhizomes and carbohydrate concentrations were mostly preserved, indicating the importance of these special organs. 

Tips for fieldwork

Meadows are scenic and peaceful a lot of the time, but it’s not always easy.  As an open system, there often isn’t a lot of shade, so depending on the season, you could be quite exposed to sunny heat, windy cold, or rain, so be prepared.  Care is also needed when conducting fieldwork in meadows; the belowground structures may not go as deep as in other places, but they are often intermingled and can make quite a mess to disentangle and pull from the soil without damaging them. 

 I really enjoy seeing the diversity in plant form and coexistence in the field.  I enjoy taking cover surveys through the year and seeing how each plant changes as it sprouts and grows through the year.  When collecting plants (for experiments or just measurements), I always enjoy seeing the diverse range of sizes, textures, and shapes that can be present for a single species and sometimes even on a single specimen.

Some interpretations of forms that can be found in meadows, inspired by the ‘blue onion’ style of Central Euopean tableware (F. C. Lubbe).

The future

With so much diversity in structures and traits, there is still a lot to learn.  One particular focus of mine is understanding more about storage strategy, especially the type and quantity of storage carbohydrates, and how the physiological properties of these molecules are used to avoid this variety of stresses.  Plants store using a wide variety of carbohydrate types and in varying amounts, but because of this complexity, phylogenetic constraints, and the many overlapping roles and uses of these molecules, we still know very little.  Stress mediation is of course of growing concern because of the impact of new fluctuations and patterns in temperature and precipitation under the continuing effects of climate change.  Another focus of mine is the role of these organs in overwintering (Lubbe et al., 2021) which is another complicated and often overlooked topic that I am excited to continue to explore and that is also extremely relevant as we seek to understand plant response to climate change.  We are working to increase our knowledge of these organs and their traits in local meadow systems but also to expand to larger gradients and a diverse range of habitats and species.

Some meadow plants, including a stoloniferous Veronica species (F. C. Lubbe).

As part of my quest to understand belowground storage organs, I have also begun work investigating the genus Oxalis specifically, because of its extreme diversity in belowground storage organ types and traits.  So far, this has only involved using plant collections in greenhouses, where we take advantage of very close proximity to many species to carefully investigate above and belowground traits all through their seasonal cycle in a way that would be completely impossible in the field.  Hopefully someday this study can include more data gathering in the field in both southern Africa and South America, two hotspots for the genus. 

You can read more about Curtis’ work on his blog site, Plant Life Belowground, and on his department’s Twitter page.

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