5 Things to Know About Aerial Roots

Aerial roots are a fascinating and complex botanical phenomenon. As their name suggests, aerial roots are roots that form above ground, often high up on the plant. They serve various important functions for plants and enable them to thrive in their environments. For plant enthusiasts, gardeners, and nature lovers alike, learning about aerial roots provides insight into amazing adaptions plants have evolved. Read on to uncover five of the most notable things to know about these intriguing roots that grow in the air.

What Are Aerial Roots?

Aerial roots are roots that originate above the ground rather than below it. Most plants grow roots underground to absorb moisture and nutrients. Aerial roots, however, form adventitiously on above-ground parts of plants such as branches, trunks, and leaves.

Aerial roots serve various purposes depending on the species. Primary functions include structural support, absorption of moisture and nutrients, and aeration. For example, the banyan tree produces aerial roots that grow down from its branches to the soil, expanding its root system and offering extra structural support as the tree grows larger. Other plants like orchids utilize aerial roots mainly to absorb moisture and nutrients, rather than for anchorage.

Aerial roots originate from various plant structures. Some emerge from the stem above the soil. Others form on branches, tree trunks, or even leaves. Thick aerial roots extending in tapering ropes from high up in trees are referred to as adventitious prop roots. The presence of aerial roots is one characteristic that distinguishes woody vines from trees, as many vines produce aerial roots to help support their slender stems.

Plants that form aerial roots are known as epiphytes or hemiepiphytes. Epiphytes grow on other plants or objects for physical support, while absorbing moisture and nutrients from the air and debris around them. Hemiepiphytes germinate on the ground but later form aerial roots that eventually establish contact with the soil. Well-known plants with aerial roots include orchids, philodendrons, mangroves, banyan trees, and ficus.

Why Do Some Plants Grow Aerial Roots?

Aerial roots allow plants to adapt to their environments for survival. Plants grow aerial roots for various reasons based on their habitat and needs:

  • Structural support – Aerial roots provide vines and large trees with extra support to stand tall and avoid breaking or toppling over. Prop roots, buttress roots, and other thick aerial roots offer anchorage and stability.
  • Access to sunlight – In dense jungles and rainforests, aerial roots reaching higher towards sunlight penetrate the canopy so plants can thrive with more light exposure.
  • Absorb moisture and nutrients – Some aerial roots absorb moisture and nutrients like nitrogen from humid air, rain, and debris accumulating on the forest floor below. This provides added nutrition.
  • Oxygen circulation – Aerial roots promote ventilation between crowded roots in swampy areas, increasing oxygen circulation to allow roots to respire. Mangrove trees in coastal swamps exhibit this adaption.
  • Reproduction – Certain aerial roots can give rise to new plants. Banyan trees in tropical forests reproduce vegetatively when their aerial roots reach the ground and provide anchorage for a new trunk.
  • Habitat suitability – Epiphytes rely on aerial roots to grow on other plants and objects for physical support, rather than in the ground. This adaption allows them to thrive in tree canopies.

In summary, aerial roots are a remarkable adaption that enhances the growth and survivability of many plants in their native environments, from tropical rainforests to flooded swamps. The various functions demonstrate the evolutionary benefits of growing roots in the air.

Examples of Plants with Aerial Roots

Many plants around the world develop aerial roots to help them thrive. Here are some top examples:

Banyan Tree

Distinctive for its aerial prop roots, the banyan tree starts as an epiphyte growing in another tree before sending down aerial roots that form additional trunks as the tree expands horizontally. This allows the massive tree to support all of its own weight. The sprawling banyan tree can cover acres of land.


Growing along tropical coastlines, mangroves produce aboveground roots called prop roots that arch down from branches and eventually reach the soil. These roots help the trees absorb oxygen in soft, waterlogged soil where they grow. Mangrove aerial roots provide stability in stormy weather and coastal floods.


Beautiful epiphytic orchid flowers bloom from plants supported by thick aerial roots that absorb moisture and nutrients as the orchid perches on rocks or the branches of forest trees. Velamen tissue on the aerial roots functions like a sponge to soak up water.

Pandanus (Screwpine)

Unusual spiraling aerial roots give pandanus trees structural stability on windy coastal areas, mountainsides, and in swampy terrain. The prop roots emerge from the trunk and branches, corkscrewing downwards.

Strangler Fig

Starting out growing on other trees, strangler figs eventually surround the host tree with many descending aerial roots. The roots meld together and effectively strangle the tree, eventually replacing it. The strangler fig becomes a freestanding tree supported by the fused aerial roots.


Tropical vining philodendrons thrive as houseplants thanks to aerial roots that absorb moisture and nutrients. Heartleaf philodendrons and split-leaf philodendrons exhibit these characteristic clinging aerial roots.

So next time you see a large banyan tree, coastal mangrove, or epiphytic orchid during your travels, take a closer look at their aerial roots and the exceptional adaptions that allow the plants to flourish.

How Do Aerial Roots Work?

To understand why aerial roots are so important for plant growth and survival, it’s essential to know how they function:

  • Moisture absorption – Many aerial roots contain specialized spongy tissue called velamen that absorbs water and nutrients. Velamen cells have porous walls that retain water.
  • Nutrient absorption – Some aerial roots form rootlets that penetrate accumulated debris or humus in jungles. This allows absorption of vital nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.
  • Anchorage – Thick aerial prop and brace roots extend from trunks and branches until reaching the ground, providing structural support and stability in high winds.
  • Oxygen intake – Aerial roots enable oxygen circulation, allowing roots to respire despite flooded soil conditions. This adaption is vital for mangroves.
  • Photosynthesis – Certain aerial roots contain chlorophyll and undergo photosynthesis. Some orchid aerial roots perform photosynthesis to make food.
  • Vascular transport – Once aerial roots extend down and enter the soil, they can connect to the vascular system to transport water, nutrients, and sugars like a normal root system.
  • New plants – Banyan tree aerial roots support new vertical trunks, allowing the tree to propagate vegetatively.

In summary, aerial roots utilize diverse techniques like velamen tissue, rootlets, oxygen circulation, and photosynthesis to aid growth and survival. Their unique adaptive functions distinguish them from traditional underground roots.

Benefits of Aerial Roots for Plants

Aerial roots offer plants many advantages that promote growth and resiliency:

Extra Structural Support

Thick aerial prop roots elongating from tree trunks and branches give added anchorage and tensile strength. This prevents tall trees like banyans from breaking or falling over. Plants like orchids also rely on aerial root support.

Additional Nutrition

Specialized aerial roots absorb moisture and dissolved minerals from humid air, rain, and accumulated debris. This supplements underground nutrient uptake.

Increased Sunlight Exposure

In dense forests, plants compete for sunlight. Aerial roots extending upward allow plants to reach sunlight through the canopy, supporting growth.

Oxygen Circulation

Aerial roots aerate otherwise suffocated root systems in swamps and waterlogged soils. The improved circulation permits normal root respiration.

Habitat Adaptability

Unique aerial roots allow particular plants to thrive as epiphytes high up on tree branches in tropical forests, for example.

Clonal Reproduction

Banyan trees reproduce vegetatively as aerial roots form additional trunks and create clones of the parent tree, expanding the root system.

Erosion Control

Thick networks of aerial roots stabilize shorelines and prevent soil erosion, like in mangrove forests. This protects coastal ecosystems.

Aerial roots clearly offer many structural and physiological perks. Plants exhibit amazing adaptability thanks to these innovative roots that plug in above ground!

5 Interesting Facts about Aerial Roots

Aerial roots have some surprising traits that set them apart from standard underground roots:

Some Conduct Photosynthesis

Certain aerial roots contain chlorophyll and undergo photosynthesis to produce energy, unlike roots below ground. This provides an extra source of food for the plant.

They Can Originate from Leaves

While usually stemming from branches or trunks, aerial roots also emerge from the leaves of some tropical epiphytes like bromeliads.

Certain Orchid Roots Contain Chlorophyll

Many orchids contain green aerial roots that photosynthesize and absorb humidity and rain. Some tropical orchids get all their nutrients from aerial roots.

Old Banyan Trees Can Cover Acres

As banyan trees continually expand via aerial roots forming new trunks, the hollowed-out bases of very old trees can envelop acres of land.

Rootlets Absorb Nutrients from Debris

Some aerial roots form many fine lateral rootlets that penetrate accumulated debris and humus on jungle floors, absorbing nitrogen and minerals.

The unique adaptive functions of aerial roots enable plants to meet challenges like structural support, moisture absorption, reproduction, and more. Learning about their specialized traits provides insight into botanical innovations that aid survival.

Frequently Asked Questions About Aerial Roots

Many people have questions about these fascinating roots that grow above ground. Here are answers to some common aerial root FAQs:

Why are aerial roots important for plants?

Aerial roots are extremely important for providing supplemental support, moisture, and nutrients. They also facilitate oxygen circulation around flooded root systems and aid reproduction via vegetative cloning. Aerial roots allow plants to adapt to their native environments.

How do aerial roots absorb water and nutrients?

Special velamen tissue on aerial roots functions like a sponge to absorb rain and humidity. Fuzzy aerial rootlets also penetrate accumulated organic debris to absorb nitrogen and minerals from decaying matter.

Do indoor houseplants have aerial roots?

Many common vining houseplants like pothos and philodendrons produce aerial roots. This helps maximize moisture absorption in the relatively dry indoor environment. Avoid excessive humidity though, which can promote too much aerial root growth. Monitor moisture closely.

Can you prune back aerial roots?

It’s best not to prune aerial roots on indoor plants like orchids, as they serve important functions. Outdoors, pruning aerial roots is sometimes done aesthetically but avoid excessive trimming that could compromise the plant’s health.

Which nutrient does velamen absorb?

Velamen tissue on aerial roots excellently absorbs water due to its spongy porous structure. It also readily takes up dissolved mineral nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from humid air and rain. This provides extra nutrition for the plant.

Can aerial roots grow into the ground?

Yes, aerial roots are capable of growing down until reaching and penetrating the soil, which facilitates increased nutrient and water absorption. Banyan trees send aerial prop roots down that strengthen the entire root system as they intertwine and fuse together.

Aerial roots are a wondrous example of plant evolution and adaption. Their specialized functions provide key benefits that enhance growth and survivability in diverse environments, from tropical forests to swamps. Next time you see aerial roots, take a moment to appreciate these fascinating botanical innovations.


Aerial roots are an ingenious natural phenomenon that may seem mystifying at first glance. However, these useful roots that grow above ground offer plants many structural and physiological advantages. Aerial roots provide supplemental anchorage and absorb humidity, rain, and nutrients from the air and debris around them. They facilitate oxygen circulation in flooded soils and aid vertical growth towards sunlight in dense forests. Unique aerial root adaptions allow certain plants to thrive as epiphytes high up on tree branches. Other species like banyan trees rely on aerial roots for vegetative reproduction via cloning. While most plant roots grow underground, aerial roots demonstrate how evolution equips organisms with innovative traits to thrive in their native habitats. The next time you see the snaking ropes of a banyan’s prop roots or the clinging roots of an orchid, take a moment to appreciate the marvels of botanical engineering.