Botanist Linda Curtis

Botanist Linda Curtis ponders the value of sedges.

Botanist Linda Curtis ponders the value of sedges.

What good are sedges?

I was having my hair cut and told the hairdresser that I had 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 could understand. So I went back to the place where I found the rare plantOK, plant,” 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 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 good point is 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 the 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, lifting a rooted cord  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 reminde 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 survive for days underwater. They close their breath pores like holding a breath. 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 asociation. A little plant was just one part. That was good.

So months later, I went back for another haircut. “I found a small rare plant.” And as before she asked, “What good is it?” I would like to say I ate it and it was delicious, but couldn’t. Or, it was pretty, and I picked it for a bouquet. No. I said it was small, it was rare, and it was food for little creatures.

“Well,” she said, “What good is 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, some 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.So I walked to the edge of the marsh and watched. Head up, head down, up and down, a perky sedge wren was constructing its 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, a nest and roof all in one. The bird sat on top of its nest and rested. Hmm, a nesting and resting place, I like 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 sedge 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


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