Can you imagine a world devoid of Easter lilies? Christmas cactus? Or the ever-present African violet?
It seems unimaginable that the floriferous icons that grace our churches and homes would ever vanish (unless at the hand of someone without a green thumb!). But although they might seem “ordinary” and “forever,” many of the habitats from where these plants’ species originate, and in some cases the species themselves, are endangered or on the verge of disappearing altogether.
A 2016 report from the United Kingdom’s Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, one of the leading horticulture conservation and study centers, estimates that “21 percent of the world’s plants are currently threatened with extinction.” Some of these plants are far removed from our daily lives. But some are closely related to the very flowers and foliage we enjoy on our windowsills year-round or on holidays.
For example, the stunning varieties of African violets that we have today are related to some species whose natural habitats are endangered in East Africa, and other gesneriads (the plant family to which African violets belong) are threatened in South Africa and elsewhere.
Some native orchids and ferns in the United States and abroad are disappearing in the wild, and some species related to our modern-day Christmas cactus, such as “Schlumbergera kautskyi” are also endangered.
The species plant of our Easter lily, “Lilium longiflorum,” is not endangered, but “Lilium occidentale,” the Western lily, native to California, is so scarce that it is illegal to possess it and is protected under both the California Endangered Species Act and the federal Endangered Species Act.
Understanding this “backstory” to common houseplants does not exactly affect our holiday decorating plans, but it can deepen our understanding of how extraordinary some of the more ordinary things around us are — and how we might be more mindful stewards of them.
When I was diagnosed with lupus nearly 20 years ago, I couldn’t garden outdoors anymore because of extreme sun sensitivity. But, I had to grow something (it’s in my Midwestern DNA, I suppose), and so turned to African violets and other gesneriads indoors. To my surprise, I met many people who shared my enthusiasm, made wonderful friends, and have greatly enjoyed my hobby.
But as I learned about the connection between the plants in my home and those in the wild, some struggling or gone, I realized that there was something more to my pursuit, something to carefully pay attention to. Even the most modest attempt at maintaining a connection with God’s Earth has far-reaching consequences — deep down in the heart.
In tending to gardens or flower pots, we are really rediscovering our own “roots” as stewards of a part of creation, however small, and as nurturers of something precious to pass on to the next generation, not toss precipitously on the proverbial mulch pile.
In handling delicate plants, we appreciate something more fragile than ourselves and wonder in the work, however clumsy we are! We experience what it is to sow a seed and tend it to maturity, and can apply that experience to many other aspects of life, including building strong relationships.
When we hear about species facing endangerment or extinction, we most often think of animals. But the loss of even one plant species can precipitate a serious imbalance in a habitat’s entire ecosystem, affecting insect, fish, animal and bird populations, too.
And the loss of a sense of connection with the Earth can create an imbalance, too, one where we forget our appreciation for the Creator of creation, one where we forget how uniquely we are equipped to serve as stewards.
By understanding the context of the living things around us, and by rolling up our sleeves and digging deep — literally and figuratively — where we can, we enhance our perspective on our place in the world. God’s world. Wonder, lilies, violets and all!
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