Several years ago, I was kayaking in a swampy bay in our lake. From a distance, I thought I saw the legs of a dead giraffe. How can that be, I wondered. But as I got closer, I could see that it was actually a large plant root of some sort. I took a photo; I was interested to know what it is.—Neil Poutanen, Lac Sinclair, Que.
We were interested too. Because we had absolutely no idea. (Well, we were 99 per cent certain that it wasn’t part of a dead giraffe.) Turns out, your second guess was correct. It’s a root system.
“Those are actually the roots of a water lily—you can see the leaves in the surrounding water,” says Sean Fox, the manager of horticulture and curator of the University of Guelph Arboretum in Guelph, Ont. “The roots would typically be buried in the mud at the bottom of the lake, but if dislodged, they can float to the surface.”
Neat-o! But why are the roots so huge? “Water lilies can form large colonies, where many hundreds of leaves are attached to the same root network,” says Fox. “So, while the individual leaves might look small compared to the roots, those large rhizomes are actually part of a broader network that stores food over the winter and supplies many leaves, which can cover a very large area of the surface water.”
It doesn’t take much to dislodge even a big honkin’ root network. It could have been knocked loose by turtles or fish moving around in the substrate, turbulent water during a storm, or “a well-meaning paddler sticking their paddle too deep into shallow water, hitting the mud, and pulling some roots up,” says Fox. (He’s not throwing shade. He means a different paddler. Not you.)
The roots are strange-looking, sure, “but beautiful in their own way,” says Fox. Just like a giraffe.
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This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue of Cottage Life magazine.