What's in a Name? The "Sundew"

Holly Zadra
September 18, 2021

Sundew plants that grow in the fen and the bog of the Orono Bog Basin — Drosera rotundifolia and Drosera intermedia — entice, capture, and digest small animals. That is, sundews use their stalked and beautiful mucilaginous glands to attract and then devour things with arms and legs. That’s a kind of creepy plant after which to name a yoga studio, isn’t it? After all, isn’t ahimsa, non-harming, a thing in yoga? Aren’t yogis usually vegetarians?

There’s a story here. Let me explain.

While completing Yoga Teacher Training, I worked unsuccessfully throughout the heat of summer on some pretty intense hip opening work by focusing on an outcome: I believed I had to be able to sit in Padmasana (lotus pose) to have any street cred as a yoga teacher. After all, my yoga teacher did it almost every time she sat down. My neighbor in his 60s does it every morning among a myriad of others things I cannot do. His son and daughter-in-law did it too while overhearing me whine about my inability as they attempted to listen to a Beatles cover band at Pittsfield’s Hathorn Park and didn’t otherwise do any yoga.

In most instances, having a goal is a fine endeavor. But in yoga, one of my first moments of softening occurred when I read BKS Iyengar’s reference to the Bhagavad Gītā in his book Light on Yoga, “Work alone is your privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive; and never cease to work... This equipoise is called Yoga.” I realized about halfway through working intensely toward the goal, that the process — the practice — was where some interesting work was happening, not, ultimately in my ability or inability to get each ankle on the opposite knee while sitting upright and breathing steadily with a soft gaze or closed eyes.

It is said that we store our current tensions and anxieties in the shoulders and neck. Old tensions, those leftover from trauma or anxieties left unmetabolized are stored in the hips.

I had a goal. It was to sit in Lotus. Though the pose still does not come easily to me, the practice is what matters. Throughout the weeks of daily pigeon pose and a supine half-lotus and all manner of hip opening poses that were not Lotus, I began to notice how deeply sad I was. Weepy sad. I began to cry. A lot. And not because I couldn’t do Lotus. It seems I had some unmetabolized stuff there (more on this in a later post).

Meanwhile, I pondered the symbolism of the lotus flower itself and its deep connections to Eastern religions and especially yoga. The lotus plant —“Nelumbo nucifera,” or colloquially “water lily” — roots in and arises from muddy water to blossom above water without a trace of the mud from which it derives on any of its gorgeous petals. Some descriptions of the lotus describe it as free of impurities. Lotus pose — or padmasana — is the singular pose Patanjali includes in the Yoga Sutras that date back to 400 CE, one of only a handful of definitive texts in my teacher training.

The lotus flower offers a fascinating metaphor for the practice of yoga in its rootedness to the earth, the process of purification (Śauca), a blossom that cannot be forced (clearly the metaphor wasn’t sinking in), and a kind of heavenly beauty or connection to the divine. The pose is one that many of us have difficulty for all kinds of reasons.

Not only was the pose not forthcoming, but somehow the metaphor began to wear on me. My education and my life as a writer taught me the limitations of cliché. An overused phrase with universal meaning begins, in time, to lose its evocative power. So as a visual for the meditation work I was engaged in, discovering something that grew and thrived in Maine became my objective. I also wanted the plant I chose to be adaptive to circumstance, like me, but not rooted exactly like the lotus since my own roots are all the way across the country in the high desert of Montana. I sought a visual symbol that could share an affinity with my own life steeped in Montana’s copper mining culture and heavy drinking, ELO and my mother’s subtle insistence that I could do anything and be anyone I wanted to be if I just set my mind to it (except, it seems, lotus pose). I wanted to find singular focus, not get stuck in a literary criticism of the way in which the lotus has begun to lack both the specificity and complexity that could actually be of use as a visualization in my goal of achieving the so-named pose.

Like a rose symbolizing both the beauty and pain of love, the lotus felt overused, cliché in our Western consumer-driven economy where countless products use the name to sell things to people far cooler than I who have the image tattooed on their low backs or biceps.

Then, via the extraordinary power at my fingertips found through Google while leaning over my computer, shoulders sinking forward, the sundew arrived. It’s this tiny little plant that thrives despite its circumstances in the mineral rich, but nutrient poor bog.

This plant adapts. It makes its way vibrantly, beautifully, and in ways that make us tolerably uncomfortable despite roots that aren’t necessarily all that nutritious. Instead, it seeks what it needs from the air it breathes. It unfolds and blossoms as an adaptation to what is otherwise infertile. In this way, I can identify with the plant. And I can also identify with eating animals every so often. Though I am mostly vegetarian, and though I can make a strong case for eating but a palm-sized serving of only locally-raised, organic meats and dairy a maximum of every other day, I do have a carnivorous side. We could generate some good conversations about the violence to animals in CAFOs, slaughter houses, and massive milking operations juxtaposed with the positive effects of ungulates on grassland and chickens in our backyards. But that is another post.

There’s more to this story.

So there I was on Google Images, exploring this extraordinary plant, linking to various scientific websites about its biology and function. But if my time spent with herbalist Dana Woodruff has taught me anything about plants, it was that one needed to be with a plant in order to know it. Actually spend time with the plant. Have three cups of tea so to speak with the plant. I knew I needed to see the plant. Experience the plant.

So I set off with my family to have a cup of tea with a sundew. We arrived at the Orono Bog Walk where a host of fascinating plant life and soil chemistry creates what feels like an otherworldly place. I walked slowly along the boardwalk, my husband and two littlest boys way ahead of my slow, investigative saunter. I read the kiosks carefully, hoping to store some brainy pieces of the bog’s ecological food web and the acidification process of its peatland. My hope to find this tiny plant in such a vast place was conflicted with a nagging urge to keep up with my family often way ahead of me on the walk.

I fawned over pitcher plants and learned about the ombrotrophic center of the bog complex. I pondered the fungal decomposers and glimpsed the last of the bladderwort. We were all having a really wonderful time, but the sundew was elusive. Then I recalled the Gita wisdom of letting go of outcomes and instead benefiting from the work. The walk itself was a treat. The experience of the bog was enough. I didn't need to come in contact with the sundew. Or at least that is what I told myself. And so as we neared the edges of the area where the sundew would have grown, I noted that the last kiosk on the boardwalk highlighted the sundew. I lingered there as my family grew further distant. If I could not see the plant in real life, I’d commit to memory the fun facts found here.

Then a young college student, Natalie, engaged me in conversation. Natalie was with her parents who rested on a nearby bench. She was studying communication, and I recall thinking how I didn’t have time to communicate: my family was way ahead of me and the young ones were growing increasingly hungry. But the young woman was both curious about me and seemingly authentically engaged in the present moment. Natalie wanted to know about my family and where we lived and how we made a living in Maine. She told me about how many times she had walked the boardwalk during stressful finals weeks or to celebrate a beautiful day. She introduced me to her parents. She asked why we chose to go walking there that day. So, with my internal struggle to catch up my family well-hidden, I told her about my quest to find the elusive sundew, what I had discovered via Google, how small the plant was, and its incredible insectivorous nature. She gently assured me I would find it someday, that though it was small, and the task arduous, someday I’d find it.

Then I told her I had to catch up with my family, but that there was a photo of the plant on the kiosk. “Check it out,” I told her. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

And as I pointed out the photograph, my eyes lowered onto the bog again in resignation. I would not be seeing or having any tea that day with a sundew.

And there, to the left of the kiosk, at the end of my resigned gaze, was Drosifera rotundifolia, the very roundleaf sundew I had searched for all along, the only sundew I have ever seen in my 45 years of life on the planet.