Roots: Dicentras and Corydalis

We; gardeners, amateur botanists, plant enthusiasts; spend much of our time waxing lyrical about the various merits of various plants. Flowers get the most attention, leaves and foliage next, stems and bark and seeds and seed heads come lower down on the scale, often featuring as little more than curiosities. Roots very rarely figure at all in this list. By their very nature they tend to be hidden from view, their subterranean antics left to be appreciated only by a whole realm of flora and fauna that lives undetected beneath our feet, but very much unnoticed by us humans. Whilst removing a stray Corydalis linstowiana from in and amongst another plant, I found myself enthusing about it’s root structure.

corydalis linstowiana roots

I continued to enthuse for some time, which led to some furtling around the perimeter of some other Corydalis, and some Dicentra too. The more I furtled, the more I enthused. All this furtling and enthusing led to an entirely new word: furtlenthuse.

Corydalis linstowiana

As the plant which began my furtlenthusing, it seems right to begin my revelations here. In truth, I had absolutely no idea what lay beneath the finely decorated foliage and daintily sky blue flowers of C. linstowiana. I suppose I hadn’t given it much thought. I was a little surprised to find such a substantial root, although it makes sense: many biennials use their roots to store up reserves for the following year’s exploits. This particular storage structure seems to act as an intermediary between the exploratory roots which wend their merry way through the soil, and the above ground structures which photosynthesise, reproduce and delight the gardener.

At the top of the storage root you can see some new buds ready to burst into action. I’ve seen this plant described as a biennial but in my, admittedly limited, experience it’s more of a short-lived perennial. It’s an opportunist, taking it’s chances in disturbed ground; I see no reason why it couldn’t carry on for more than a couple of years if the conditions remain favourable. In fact this particular plant has flowered following it’s first full year of growth, and is now heading in fine fettle to face another year.

Various Other Corydalis

Further furtlenthusing led me to some of the other Corydalis which are dotted around the place. All the plants in question are perennial plants, but sometimes I think these labels are a bit simplistic. The plants are constantly growing new stems and roots, and letting old sections die. In the most adventurous of the plants, I’d be surprised if much of plant consists of the same stems and structures as they did a few years ago. As is the case with so many plants, they blur the boundaries between the individual and collective in ways that are confusing if they are always examined from an anthropological perspective. Perhaps that’s a topic for another day: for now we move away from semantics and back to tangible realities.

Of the herbaceous perennial Corydalis, some tend towards spreading, others towards clump forming, but they all have similar characteristics. One of the best examples of typical herbaceous Corydalis growth I came across was Corydalis elata. The plant sends out exploratory roots into the soil. These roots have occasional scales along their length and when they find conditions to their liking they form a collection of scales near the surface of the soil from which they then send up leaves and flower shoots. It’s easy to see from looking at the way the roots grow that this is a plant that likes to explore the top few inches of the soil. It’s roots aren’t particularly deep, making it vulnerable to drying out, but it survives dry weather by, as a short term plan, going dormant, and in the long term, by constantly searching for the spots that suit it best.

Moving on from Corydalis elata, Corydalis temulifolia is more of a clump forming plant. Despite this, it has those bundles of scales; this time in super-sized form, sitting just above the soil surface. I find it quite an appealing feature.

Corydalis temulifolia roots


I furtlenthused over to an unnamed Dicentra formosa seedling to see what was going on. It’s another case where the close relationship between Dicentras and Corydalis reveal itself. The same exploratory roots work their way through the soil, bedecked with the same occasional scales.

Dicentra formosa roots

Before they were rudely disinterred, the roots were doing a few different things. In the photo above you can see an old leaf stalk, and a whole bundle of roots and shoots all clumped together. To the side is where the roots were starting to head out into the unknown. Here’s a root tip that came a cropper:

Wherever or whatever this chap was exploring, it obviously didn’t turn out well. It’s quickly blackening exterior is the price it has paid for it’s inquisitiveness. On the other end of the scale (no pun intended) is this fresh young shoot, boldly heading out into the unknown:

Dicentra formosa root

Good for you, unnamed Dicentra formosa seedling!

Dicentras, and herbaceous Corydalis, seem quite happy to let whole sections of the plant die off if they’re not happy. It’s not unusual for the section that you thought was the main bit of the plant to disappear, and for the plant to crop up slightly further away looking healthy and full of purpose.


  • Furtlenthuse: a portmanteau made from combining Furtle and Enthuse; eg. I furtlenthused liberally through the herbaceous border. I’m pretty sure it’s going to catch on.
  • Plants tend to do their own thing; we label them and make our plans, they mock us with their indefinable boundary-less existence.
  • The close relationship between Corydalis and Dicentra manifests itself in their roots as well as seemingly every other facet of their being.
  • For these plants to be happy, they need to be let to roam about. Their root structure is based on exploring the soil, with individual shoots being relatively short-lived.

I think that just about sums it up. It’s a bit of a jumble of thoughts; hopefully I’ve made the main points clear enough. Thanks for reading!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *