Aerial Roots: Definition, Function & Examples

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  • 0:02 Aerial Roots
  • 1:25 What Makes Them Different?
  • 2:14 Plants with Aerial Roots
  • 3:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terry Dunn

Terry has a master's degree in environmental communications and has taught in a variety of settings.

Aerial roots are a strange variation of plant roots, serving some of the same purposes as other roots, but with a twist. Here you will learn what aerial roots are, what types of plants have them, and what makes them unusual.

Aerial Roots

There's probably no creepier story about roots than the one of the strangler fig tree. The story starts when a strangler fig seed is dropped by an animal into the branches of the host tree, where it quickly establishes itself before starting to send roots towards the ground. But, those roots are not just intended to get water and nourishment from the soil. The strangler fig roots surround the host tree trunk, becoming thicker and stronger, eventually squeezing the life out of the host tree. Then, as the host tree rots within, the sturdy strangler fig roots become the trunk of the free-standing fig tree.

Although there are several types of roots in the plant world, they all share some basic purposes:

  • They absorb water and dissolved minerals
  • They store food
  • They keep the plant from falling over

The type of roots you're probably most familiar with are the kind that are actually rooted in the soil. You've seen them if you've ever pulled weeds, repotted a plant, or noticed what a tree base looks like when it's toppled over. But there is another type of root, aerial roots, which is the type of root the strangler fig uses to take over its host. Aerial roots are roots that are fully or partially exposed to the air. They do attach to something, at least eventually, like trees, bark, or rocks, but they never become fully submerged in the soil.

What Makes Aerial Roots Different?

The roots you're most familiar with grow from the root tissue of the plant. There are many root hairs, which are tiny, finger-like projections that increase the surface area of the root system so that a lot of water and minerals can be absorbed. But because they're protected by the soil, they're not so likely to dry out.

Aerial roots, on the other hand, are a type of adventitious root. They grow not from root tissue, but from the plant's stem or leaf tissues. Because they're exposed to the air, they're more likely to dry out and are usually found in plants that live in wet environments, like tropical rain forests. Some aerial roots even have chlorophyll (the plant chemical that helps to convert the sun's energy into food for the plant) and can photosynthesize. Plants with underground roots have little reason to have chlorophyll since they are not exposed to the sun.

Plants With Aerial Roots

Aerial roots do some interesting things in the plants that have them. Climbing vines are one category of plants that often have aerial roots. These roots help the vines attach to and climb on different surfaces. Ivy is a good example of a vine with some aerial roots.

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