A few years ago, I visited the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Inside the greenhouse area, I was completely stunned to see the magnificent Cissus verticillata plant for the first time. At first, I didn’t even realize I was looking at a plant because this fascinating specimen has aerial roots that hang down like garlands. The plant is native to tropical regions and the roots create a strong fiber that is used for many things, including basket weaving. How incredible to think of letting your roots, your very source of life, hang totally exposed to the world! With no soil to protect them, everything that makes this plant exist is left completely vulnerable for all to see.
While I was aware of many diverse examples of root systems, from free-wheeling air plants to the intertwining roots of redwood trees, the idea of a plant with roots completely exposed to the world had never occurred to me. As I thought about it, I realized that the whole way of being a plant is different for the Cissus because it has a quite a different process for taking in nutrients and moisture from all of the other plants surrounding it in that greenhouse.
Don’t we often find ourselves just like that Cissus plant as we walk through the world? We are surrounded by other people who have different ways of nurturing themselves and being in the world from us. They might have a biological root system that proudly defines them. They might go so far as to let these roots hang freely for the world to see. Or they might have spent their life trying to forget painful beginnings, pushing their roots deep into the soil in hopes of forgetting them all together.
Making sense of our root systems is often the work of a lifetime. Understanding how our own family connections and experiences have shaped us plays a key role in knowing ourselves and how we relate to others. Perhaps our biggest challenge is that we often have decided what kind of plant we think we should be, what kind of root structure we should have and what nutrients we should need to thrive. This may be in conflict with who we really are or where we really grow and thrive most naturally.
Fortunately for us, we can make choices. Though we might have started in one section of the greenhouse, ultimately we can make a decision to call another part home. Unlike a plant, we have the power to care for ourselves, to choose our ecosystem. We can choose to roll up our sleeves and loosen the soil that has compacted around us so that our roots can spread more freely. We can amend the soil around us and replace the nutrients that our roots need to thrive. We can choose a location that has a bit more shade or sets us in the bright sunshine.
Another fascinating specimen, the resurrection plant (Selaginella lepidophylla), native to desert regions, can actually fold up into a ball and roll to a new location. It can patiently wait out several years of drought, unfolding to start a new life once moisture returns. If it can accomplish such a tremendous feat without the help of a shovel or even two hands, it really leaves no excuses for us! Finding the spot where we can grow and thrive gives us the strength to be a better companion plant to others and to offer more of our unique beauty and gifts to the world.
Julie Haydon is an artist and musician living the beautiful hills of Oakland, CA who creates works of beauty that brings people together. When she is not at work in the studio or making music, she is outside playing in the dirt or hiking with her husband and their two spoiled dogs.