Every day, without even realizing it, you come into contact with geophytes. By just walking around the grocery store you pass by dozens of these plants — from onions to potatoes to ginger to carrots. But what exactly is a geophyte, and why are they important?

assorted flowers
Geophytes are important to ornamental economies, as shown by these flowers on sale at Trader Joe’s.

Florida Museum photo by Cody Coyotee Howard

1: What makes a geophyte a geophyte?

Geophytes are plants typically with underground storage organs, where the plants hold energy or water. A broad synonym for a geophyte is bulb, but it is far more diverse than that. Many of these plants protect their buds using structures such as bulbs, corms or rhizomes. Some geophytes also have their underground buds connected to sometimes large tuberous roots or swollen taproots. A geophyte is also a structural adaptation, which means not all of these plants are related to each other.

2: A geophyte’s storage organ is like a built-in disaster-readiness kit.

The geophyte’s underground storage organ helps protect the valuable nutrients it holds inside. It shelters its buds in the soil to protect them from environmental factors like heat, cold, fire, drought and animals. In this way, the plant prepares for adverse conditions just as we prepare for things like hurricanes and tornadoes.

potatoes in bins
Geophytes are important to agricultural economies, as many people find them delicious to eat. These geophytes were found in a food market in Hong Kong.

Florida Museum photo by Cody Coyotee Howard

3: Geophytes make for good eatin’.

The energy geophytes store is generally in the form of carbohydrates. One reason these plants are so tasty is because all of their nutrients are held in their storage organ, and that is the part we eat.

Geophytes are important to agricultural economies, and tuberous geophytes, which are those with a thickened part of either the stem or root, are valuable to the livelihoods of people across the globe.

“For example, hundreds of different varieties of potatoes are cultivated in Peru,” said Cody Coyotee Howard, a doctoral student at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “Similarly, cassava is a major crop in Nigeria, as well as yams.”

4: They’re also attractive.

Geophytes are also important to ornamental economies. Lilies and tulips dominate the industry, but the community is also trying to diversify and expand, so new plants are starting to appear on store shelves across the country.

“When walking through a floral section at your local grocery store or farmers market, people are likely to encounter the above ground parts of geophytes – their flowers,” Howard said. “For example, an eclectic bouquet of tulips, lilies, dahlias and hyacinths would be entirely composed of geophytes.”

purple flowers
Geophytes don’t just include potatoes and onions, but flowers such as tulips and lilies. These flowers were found in Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City.

Florida Museum photo by Cody Coyotee Howard

5: Geophytes have their secrets.

There is still not much known about the development of the underground organ, and detailed anatomical studies have shown that there are at least four bulb types, with each differing in bulb scale, leaf and flower development.

“We do not fully understand the anatomical and genetic mechanisms of their growth,” Howard said. “We also do not fully understand the anatomical relatedness of these structures to one another.”

Going forward, he said he is working on a few papers that look at what the driving factors are in geophyte evolution, specifically with a look at climate.

Howard has also partnered with other researchers from the University of Florida; the National Autonomous University of Mexico; Cornell University; University of California, Berkeley; and Cambridge University to create a working group called Geophytic Organisms — Ontogeny & Phylogeny, or GOOPhy.

The group was created to bring interested scientists together and promote research on geophytes. They are currently working on improving the scientific community’s ability to consistently study, describe and collect the diverse underground structures of geophytes.

Visit the GOOPhy website.

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