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'Unhappy' pot plants fail to reach full potential

July 1, 2012 - London

MRI imaging used to capture plant pot root snapshots has revealed that the roots "sense the size of the pot" and restrict the growth of the plant.

It was also found that plants grown in pots that are too large, are susceptible to root disease because of excess moisture retained in the soil, the BBC reported.

Lead researcher Hendrik Poorter, from the Julich research institute in Germany, revealed that as soon as he saw the results, he re-potted all of his houseplants.

"I thought, you poor guys, what have I done to you?" he said.

For the imaging study the research team primarily focused on sugarbeet and barley.

The resulting 3D map of the root's structure stretching to the outer limits of the pot shows, for the first time, exactly how restricted potted plants are.

In their research on 80 different species, the team found that doubling a pot's size caused a plant to grow almost half as big again.

"The most surprising thing is that there seems to be no end to the pot limitation," Dr Poorter explained.

"For every plant species we looked at, pot size was the factor limiting its growth.

The scientist explained that within as little as two weeks of seeds being sown, a plant's roots would stretch to the edge of the pot and then, "the trouble starts".

"When they reach the edge, they send some kind of signal to the shoots to say, 'there's a problem - stop growing'."

Interestingly, each plant appeared to be trying to escape its pot with more than three quarters of the root system being in the outer half of the container.

"The inside of the pot is hardly used," Dr Poorter said.

Although this may sound sentimental, understanding a plant's full potential is crucial for the scientists that study them. It reveals how much of a parallel can be drawn between studies carried out in the lab and how plants would grow in nature.

"Even the largest pot was not large enough not to limit growth," he added.


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