Professor Hans Cornelissen and his Russian-Dutch team have discovered that the small alpine plant Corydalis conorhiza has both normal roots that grow into the ground and snow roots that grow up into the snow:
Cornelissen’s team hypothesise that the additional snow roots allow C. conorhiza to take nitrogen directly from the snow. Many mountain plants take up nitrogen from melted snow soaking into the ground only after snow melt. However an impenetrable ice crust prevents C. conorhiza from doing this, therefore the plant is forced to depend upon the snow roots.
To test the hypothesis a small amount of fertiliser, heavily enriched with an uncommon isotope of nitrogen (15N), was added to the snow surrounding C. conorhiza plants. Days later the team discovered various sections of the plants contained high concentrations of 15N, including the snow roots, tubers and the leaves which had appeared after snow melt. In contrast, a species of dandelion growing close to the C. conorhiza plants did not possess any 15N. Further study confirmed the roots are anatomically very different from normal soil roots, making them specifically adapted for the fast uptake and transport of nitrogen.