by Philip Fry
As I wandered along our lane watching early wildflowers begin to show, it occurred to me that there are similarities between these plants braving the precarious weather of early spring, and people who choose to give up some of their time to do volunteer work. It may be that I have been preoccupied by how to frame my thoughts for this column, but I think that there is something in the connection worthy of thought. Let’s look at Wild Ginger and Bloodroot.
Like volunteers, these two species have minds of their own, and do not shun turning up on the margins of places where they normally should be. Bloodroot can thrive in roadsides where gravel has been tossed over by the plow and passing vehicles; Wild ginger adventures into exposed spots near wooded areas. They respond to something in their nature that urges them to explore, to experiment, to move gently but firmly into uncharted territory. To volunteer wildly in this way takes pluck, the courage to step away from the ordinary routines of life, simply because it needs to be done.
Another thing about these two species likens them to the efforts of volunteers. They both grow with rhizomes, horizontal stems that run between the soil and the litter shed as byproducts of life’s yearly cycle. Advancing, spreading, branching out, and forming buds, their work is unobserved until the next year’s blooming season. Wild ginger smells and tastes good, Bloodroot bleeds bright red sap. For both, it takes several years to get from seed to first flowers. Wild ginger, as it unfolds its velvety heart-shaped leaves, produces a small globular flower fringed by three triangular, purple extensions. Lying on the ground, hidden by foliage, it is concealed and camouflaged from unobservant human eyes, but it is a true wonder for those who get down on their knees to really look. The globe which encompasses the ovary is hollow and translucent, a wonder to behold. And it has a secret.
It is designed so that when its seed is ripe, ants can cut a doorway in the back to remove the seeds without disrupting the bloom. Its very shyness allows it to spread with no fuss. The flowers of Bloodroot, on the contrary, are outspoken, bold, and do not depend on sweetness. They shine forth their pure white flowers held up on stems embraced by their still unfurled leaves, but it is their pollen that attracts insect visitors, for they have no nectar. Like Wild ginger, their seed is spread by ants, but on a more overt invitation. Volunteers too spread their message according to their temperament, some quietly, others more up-front in the public forum – all with assurance and pride in what they are doing.
There is yet another point of comparison. Unlike the woodland ephemerals that grow, bloom, set seed, and die back before the forest canopy restricts up to 90% of direct sunlight, Wild ginger and Bloodroot persist during the rigours of summer heat, entertaining healthy, productive relations with the other beings that make up their habitat. They have staying power. In dry weather, their leaves shade the ground, forming a protective mat that helps conserve moisture. While their wiry roots, plunging down from their rhizomatic stems, help to aerate and improve the tilth of the soil, the vital recycling work of insects and bacteria continues unabated. Maybe nobody says thanks, but the work is accomplished just the same. New friendships are initiated in this micro-environment, and there is joy.
We are all stakeholders in the effort to combat the consequences of climate change, but with differing priorities depending on our walks in life. We all, however, have something to contribute if we wish. As we urge our local institutions to accept the challenge of fostering the large-scale volunteer work our habitat sorely needs, those of us who have been confided even a small plot of land can decide to adopt the quiet wildness of our native ginger or the bloody mindedness of Bloodroot by volunteering to work at home creating a habitat garden.
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