Underground stems are modified plant structures that derive from stem tissue but exist under the soil surface. They function as storage tissues for food and nutrients, propagation of new clones, and perennation (survival from one growing season to the next). Types include bulbs, corms, rhizomes, stolons, and tubers.
Plants have two axes of growth, which can be best seen from seed germination and growth. Seedlings develop two structures or axes of growth, one that develops upward out of the soil, called stems, and structures that develop downward which are called roots. The roots are modified to have root hairs and branch indiscriminately with cells that take in water and nutrients, while the stems are modified to move water and nutrients to and from the leaves and flowers. Stems have nodes with buds where leaves and flowers arise at specific locations, while roots do not. Plants use under ground stems to multiply their numbers by asexual reproduction and to survive from one year to the next, usually over a period of dormancy. Some plants produce stems modified to store energy and preserve a location of potential growth to survive a cold or dry period which normally is a period of inactive growth, and when that period is over the plants resume new growth from the underground stems. Being underground protects the stems from the elements during the dormancy period, such as freezing and thawing in winter or extreme heat and drought in summer or fire. They can also protect plants from heavy grazing pressure from animals, the plant might be eaten to the ground but new growth can occur from below ground stem that can not be reached by the herbivores. A number of plants, including weedy species, use underground stems to spread and colonize large areas, since the stems do not have to be supported or strong, less energy and resources are needed to produce these stems and often these plants have more mass under ground than above ground.
Types of underground stems
Different forms of underground stems include:
- Bulb - Short, upright organ used by plants for food storage or reproduction, with specialized leaves modified into thick flesh scales. Tulips and Lilies.
- Corm - Short, upright, hard or fleshy stems covered with thin, dry papery leaves.
- Rhizome - With reduced scale like leaves. The top can generate leafy stems while the bottom can produce roots. Iris.
- Stolon - Horizontal stems that run at or just below the soil surface with nodes that root and long internodes, the ends produce new plants. When above ground they are called "runners".
- Tuber - An enlarged fleshy end of a stem, generally from rhizomes but often also referring to thickened roots too.
A geophyte (earth+plant) is a plant with an underground storage organ including true bulbs, corms, tubers, tuberous roots, enlarged hypocotyls, and rhizomes. Most plants with underground stems are geophytes but not all plants that are geophytes have underground stems. Geophytes are often physiologically active even when they lack leaves. They are able to survive during adverse environmental conditions by going into a state of quiesce and later resume growth from their storage organs, which contain reserves of carbohydrates and water, when the environmental conditions are favourable again.
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