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The Root Development of Vegetable Crops: Astonishing Illustrations

By Hannah Kincaid

Tags: root systems, botanical illustrations, vegetable crops, vegetable roots, John E Weaver,

The following information is summarized from the introduction of The Root Development of Vegetable Crops, which is available for free on the Holistic Agriculture Library website.

If you’re as much of a plant nerd as we are, prepare to get absorbed. John E. Weaver, an American botanist, prairie ecologist and Professor at the University of Nebraska, completed a massive project in the year ofOnion Maturing 1927. With the help of his team of assistants, Weaver meticulously illustrated the root development of 34 popular vegetable crops (see the illustration of mature onion roots, right). In the massive undertaking that was partly botanical and partly archeological, Weaver and his team dug trenches approximately 5 feet deep to study the plant’s root systems from the side. The five-foot-deep trench created a big enough expanse onto which the scientists could slowly chisel with hand picks and ice picks to uncover and carefully examine the vegetable’s complicated root systems.

This painstaking work required much patience and expertise. The plants were studied and illustrated at multiple stages of growth in order to best represent general, long-term root habits. Every plant studied was grown in sets of at least three. This was done so that an excavation performed at two weeks of growth would not affect the results of an excavation performed after six weeks or two months. Every set of fragile roots was left undisturbed until it was time to dig.

Drawings of the root systems were made in the field on a large drawing sheet with pencil, and then later retraced with ink. Although the drawings were made on a large scale, the rootlets were often so abundant that it was still impossible to show every detail. In every case, the drawings were made to illustrate the average condition of the roots, rather than the extreme. Accompanying the illustrations are fastidious field notes regarding plant spacing, soil health, crop growth and more.

Weaver’s findings were published in Root Development of Vegetable Crops (1927), the sister publication to Root Development of Field Crops (1926). In 1929 Weaver partnered with ecological pioneer Henry Chandler Cowles to publish the first American ecology textbook.

The following illustrations are all documented on 1-by-1-foot grid lines.

Asparagus 6 Years Asparagus roots, 6 years

Bean roots 1 month Bean roots, 1 month

Bean Roots 2 Months Bean roots, 2 month


Bean Roots Surface View Bean roots, surface view, 6 inches

Beet Roots 6 Weeks Beet roots, 6 weeks

Beat Roots 10 Weeks Beet roots, 10 weeks

Beat Roots 35 Months

Beet roots, 3.5 months

Cabbage Roots 55 Days After Transplant

Cabbage roots, 55 days after transplanting

Cabbage Roots 75 Days

Cabbage roots, 75 days after transplanting

Carrot Roots 47 Days

Carrot roots, 47 days

Carrot Roots 77 Days

Carrot roots, 77 days

Carrot Roots Mature

Carrot roots, mature

Cauliflower Roots 3 Weeks

Cauliflower roots, 3 weeks after transplanting

Cauliflower Roots 8 Weeks

Cauliflower roots, 8 weeks after transplanting

Cucumber Roots 4 Weeks

Cucumber roots, 4 weeks

Cucumber Roots 6 Weeks

Cucumber roots, 6 weeks

Cucumber Roots Surface View

Cucumber roots, surface view

Eggplant Roots 7 Weeks

Eggplant roots, 7 weeks

Lettuce Roots 3 Weeks

Lettuce roots, 3 week soil comparison. The roots on the right were grown in compact soil, the roots on the left were grown in loose soil. Avoid planting seedlings in compact soil by following the tips in this article, Care and Cultivation of Permanent Garden Beds.

Lettuce Roots 2 Months

Lettuce roots, 2 months

Onion Seedlings Roots

Onion seedlings of the same age. The one on the right was grown in compact soil, the one on the left in loose soil. Avoid planting seedlings in compact soil by following the tips in this article, Care and Cultivation of Permanent Garden Beds.

Onion Roots 8 Weeks

Onion roots, 8 weeks.

Onion Roots 35 Weeks

Onion roots, 3.5 months

Onion Maturing

Onion roots, mature

Pea Roots 6 Weeks

Pea roots, 6 weeks

Mature Pea Roots

Pea roots, mature

Pepper Roots 24 Days

Pepper roots, 24 days after transplanting

Pepper Roots 6 Weeks

Pepper roots, 6 weeks

Pepper Roots Nearly Mature

Pepper roots, nearly mature

Radish Roots 5 Weeks

Radish roots, 5 weeks

Radish 2 Months

Radish roots, 2 months

Spinach Roots 6 Weeks

Spinach roots, 6 weeks

Spinach Roots 10 Weeks

Spinach roots, 10 weeks

Sweet Corn Roots 16 Days

Sweet corn roots, 16 days

Sweet Corn Roots 8 Weeks

Sweet corn roots, 8 weeks

Sweet Corn Mature Roots

Mature sweet corn roots, view from above

Sweet Potato Roots 23 Days

Sweet potato roots, 23 days after transplanting a root cutting.

Sweet Potato Roots 53 Days

Sweet potato roots, 53 days

Digging Trenches

John E. Weaver and his team of assistants dug trenches approximately 5 feet deep to study the root systems of popular vegetable varieties. 

Follow this link to see the online version of Root Development of Vegetable Crops

Illustrations by John E. Weaver