July 31, 2021

An atlas of root systems saved from oblivion and available online

It is a sleeping treasure, lurking in a botany institute in Austria. In Klagenfurt, precisely, on the shores of Lake Wörthersee. Luckily, in the fall of 2006, it was rediscovered by a Dutch researcher, Klaas Metselaar, a specialist in soil physics. Who decides, dazzled, to make it accessible to all.

Combining art and science, this treasure brings together an exceptional collection. It brings together 1,002 ink drawings which, with a learned and inspired pen, depict the rooting systems of plants from Central Europe, Mongolia, Namibia… For the eye, a marvel. For science, an anthology to draw from.

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This gem is the result of forty years of an assiduous, almost obsessive quest, begun in the 1960s. Four decades of excavation of species of all kinds: cultivated plants or weeds, meadows, forests, swamps ; alpine shrubs, wild orchids, etc. A variety all the more admirable as this collection is the result of the work of only four researchers. The instigator of this collection, Lore Kutschera (1917-2008), was a passionate Austrian naturalist. “She is one of my heroines, confie Klaas Metselaar. When I met her, she was almost 90 years old. She took me, with a colleague, to the top of a mountain: it is there that she sat to describe the roots of this atlas, while contemplating the valley. “ A mark of academic freedom.

“A monk’s job”

“When I discovered this atlas, I gasped, continues the researcher. The original designs amazed me, even more so when I realized the work they represented. “ The authors had to laboriously pull out each end of the root, make sure that it was not going to break, go up to its base. Then go back down to clear the whole system. And finally, draw it. “A monk’s job, as arduous as copying a medieval manuscript. ” Fastidious? Not for those root lovers. Lore Kutschera thus spent many vacations digging. As for his colleague Edwin Lichtenegger, he spent many evenings inking the pencil sketches sketched in the field.

At the time, we did not recognize the importance of root systems. “But today, we are discovering their interest in agriculture, notes Thomas Kuyper, professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Polycultures, more ecological, are upgraded. By playing on the root systems of different species, we could lessen the competition between them, thus increasing plant productivity. “

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