I was having my hair cut today and I told the hairdresser that I found a small rare plant. She asked, “What good is it?” A fair question from someone who couldn’t care less. Well, it was only discovered in 1991,” I said, hoping to elucidate, “so no research has been done yet to find its medicinal or food value.”
“Then what good is it?” she asked again. A fair question for someone like me who cares about rare and endangered plants and realizes she is one of a few who can or could understand.
So I went back to the place where I found the rare plant, a sedge. “OK, sedge,” I said, “Talk to me. Tell me what good you are.”
It gave me no mental insights, but it sure was cute. The tiny spikes were less than an inch long, in rows of two. While I was admiring its small form, a creature of the ground litter legged by, paused, turned its thick black head, and munched one of the spike’s seed-sacs, and moved on. Hmm, I thought, one point as food for an arthropod.
I was still looking at the plant when a swooping sound made me look at a bird that just snatched up the black leggy creature and flew up to a treetop. I could hear the “feed me, feed me” sounds of baby birds. Hmm, I thought, another point for being in a food chain of what-eats-what-eats-what.
I noticed its leaves grew in rows from the grassy tuft. I pulled on one, a rooted cord that I lifted from between other grassy plants. Hmm, I thought, it lives with other plants. If one dies, others cover the soil in its place.
A thunderclap overhead reminded me my time was limited. This area was known to flood from heavy rains and I wondered how the plants survived. Hmm, I remembered, some plants have enough air spaces in their underground stems and can survive for days underwater. That’s why they can survive on a floodplain as they hang on tight with intermeshed roots. That would help other plants “hang in there.” Plants don’t live in isolation, plants are part of an association. A little plant is just one part. It was good.
So, months later, I went back for another haircut. “I found a rare small plant.” And as before, she asked, “What good is it?” I would have liked to say I ate it and it was delicious, but I couldn’t. Or, it was pretty, and I picked it for a bouquet. No. So I said it was small, rare, and food for little creatures. “Well,” she said, “What good it that?”
So, I went back again to visit the plants. The seed-sacs were no longer there, eaten, I presumed, by birds and bugs. Only the leaves, dry and withering, were left on the tuft. As I sat and hoped it would talk to me, a bird hopped down and with quick jerking movements plucked some dried leaves and flew into the marsh. Hmm, I thought. That’s not the same bird I saw before, it’s some kind of wren.
I walked to the edge of the marsh and watched. Head up, head down, up and down, a perky sedge wren constructed a nest in the marsh in a clump of sedges. It wove the leaves in and out of the other leaves and made a domed roof over its nest. Hmm, I thought, nest and roof all in one. The bird sat on top of its nest and rested. Hmm, a nesting and resting place, I liked that.
A few months later, my hair needed another trim. “You know that rare plant I found?” I asked the hairdresser. “Yes,” she answered, did you ever find out what it was good for?”
“Well, yes,” I answered. “It was used to build the nest of a sedge wren. The plant was a sedge and has roughish leaves that cling together and hold the bird’s domed nest together in bad weather.” I showed her a photo that I took of the wee wren and its nest. “The bird is an artist like you,” I said, “but arranges sedge leaves instead of hair.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “That IS what it’s good for.”
Linda W. Curtis