Grass Grows 13-Foot Roots of "Steel"

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 31, 2004

Watching grass grow is never boring for the staff of the Bethesda, Maryland- based Vetiver Network—assuming the grass is vetiver.

Native to India, vetiver is taking root in a growing number of tropical countries, where it is used as an engineering tool to solve problems from soil erosion to pollution cleanup.

Key to the plant's performance: It grows a thick and seemingly impenetrable tangle of roots that plunge 13 feet (4 meters) straight into the ground. The roots essentially form a wall of steel that prevents erosion-prone slopes from slipping away.

Vetiver is not only cheap to grow but resistant to pests and disease. The grass soaks up pollutants and improves crop yields. What's more, it can grow in any kind of soil on any kind of slope in just about any tropical region that is free of freezing temperatures.

"There's just no negative aspect to [vetiver], and the positives we are learning more and more each time we turn around," said Dale Rachmeler, president of the Vetiver Network.

The network was formed in 1986 to promote the grass as a low-cost and efficient engineering tool, especially for development projects in cash-strapped countries.

Richard Grimshaw is the enterprise's founder and chairman. He says mainstream recognition of the technology has been slow, but notes that in the past 15 years vetiver use has spread to more than 100 countries, about 40 of which now have active projects.

The more people become aware of vetiver's many uses, Grimshaw said, the more people begin to use the grass.

Recently the grass received kudos for its role for stabilizing the slopes along a 101-mile (163-kilometer) railroad track that winds steeply through a dense forest on the African island nation of Madagascar.

Madagascan Railroad

The Fianarantsoa Côte Est (FCE) Railroad serves as the only means of transportation for the more than a hundred thousand rural Madagascan farmers who live between the highland city of Fianarantsoa and the eastern port of Manakara. The farmers grow and export mostly tree crops, such as bananas and coffee.

A study funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) found that the railroad also benefits wildlife: The rail line helps preserve a corridor of intact forest that allows animals to migrate between national parks north and south of the track.

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