Aunt Bett, Fennel, and the Lickrish Butterflies
Formed patterns are hard to break. When I was growing up, we called the mid day meal dinner and the evening meal was supper. We didn't live up the road, we lived up the holler. Aunt Bett didn't eat an ear of corn, she ate a roasineer. For those of you who are new to southern mountain speech, Aunt Bett ate an ear of corn that had been roasted. Patterns.
It has not been difficult for me to live comfortably in both worlds. I can hold a conversation in Mountainese, in western KY slang, in Mississippi drawl, and in whole syllables that could easily roll off the tongue of Queen Elizabeth II if I choose to do so, but I still have trouble understanding why in this world they let me call those pretty black fluttery things Lickrish Butterflies for so many years.
Aunt Bett said: "Little girrl, iffen you stand rite cheer and be stockstill, one a them Lickrish Butterflies will lite on your fanger, and maybe if you are real still, it'll lite on your hair." I did and it did, then I went home. "Mama, come see. If I stand stockstill Lickrish Butterflies will lite on me!" And they did again. Then she told Ninna. You see, right there was the perfect opportunity for her to correct my speech pattern, but did she do it? No she did not. And my mother was an English teacher.
So here is the butterfly story from my view point:
From Aunt Bett's back porch to the far end of her garden was about the length of a normal football field, not the width, of course, but in length. She would say to me: "Chile, go ouchyonderways and pick a bunchalickrish fo afta suppa." Those of you who live in faraway places would say: "Child, go out yonder and pick a bunch of licorice for after supper," or maybe not, since not a one of my northern friends ever says yonder. Now yonderways from the kitchen was the full length of the football field. At that far end of the garden, she had planted asparagus and fennel. I loved to walk through that patch of the garden because both plants grew way above my head and when I walked through, the fernlike fingers tickled my face and hair. It was such a fairy land.
I did not call it fennel. It was lickrish, and Aunt Bett used it to aid in digestion and to freshen her breath after the evening meal, and always before company came to call. She would put little sprigs in a jelly glass full of water and set it on the table for all to use after a meal. I loved lickrish, and chomped down on those sprigs like there was no tomorrow. Whenever someone brought her a mess of fish from the river, she dipped the fish in a meal batter that she had flavored with lickrish, then fried it in a skillet of hot lard. I loved the batter but didn't think much of the fish taste. By now you realize that lickrish means licorice flavor, unless I lost you back there in the fairyland of fennel, the true name of the plant.
I might mention a distinction here to clarify a point. Aunt Bett was very skilled in her knowledge and application of herbal medicines. What she lacked was vocabulary skills and a variety of plants. The fennel plant was as close as she ever got to a true licorice flavor in the mountains. Anise (Pimpinella anisum) and Licorice (Glycyrrhiza) are separate plants that are used to provide true licorice flavor. However I never knew them to grow in the mountains all those years ago. Whenever I walked through the row of fennel in her garden, I could smell the scent of licorice in the air. Aunt Bett made do with fennel.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a very old plant used by our ancestors for a great number of things. It is mentioned repeatedly in ancient writings. Scientific studies now back up most of those ancient medicinal cures it was used for. Its berries, roots and stems contain calcium, oleic acid, sulfur, and vitamins A and C. Stems and ferns can be eaten in fresh salads or soups, or chewed to enhance digestion. It is used to promote healthy functioning of kidneys, liver, spleen and lungs. It is now believed to help reduce the side effects of chemo and radiation. Studies using fennel are still ongoing. In legend fennel is a symbol of flattery or success, and was often believed to be an aphrodisiac. Aunt Bett sure never told me that, not even when she added it to the bread and butter pickles she made and gave as gifts.
What she did tell me was important, because with her telling I learned about life cycles. "The black swallowtail butterfly that you see out in the garden likes to lay its eggs on the lickrish plant. The eggs hatch into tiny green worms that eat the little spiky hairs off the lickrish. It grows real fast into a fat green and yellow caterpillar with black markings. Butterflies help spread the pollen so that plants will grow food for us to eat. Then when the caterpillar has stored enough lickrish food in its body, it weaves a cocoon around itself and goes to sleep. After the snows of winter, it wakes up, makes its way out of its cocoon and there it is, a real pretty lickrish butterfly." Every spring I watched for the lickrish butterflies and I was never disappointed.
When I was a sophomore in high school and learned the order of things, my teacher showed us pictures of the different butterflies that flitted about our area of the mountains. He asked us to identify them as he held the posters up in front of the class. Being the little smart aleck as usual, when he held up the picture of the black swallowtail, my hand went straight up and proceeded to wave madly in his face. "That's the Lickrish Butterfly," I said in my loudest classroom voice for all to hear.
Well, I swear, if that whole class (entirely made up of juniors and seniors and me, the only sophomore) didn't laugh right out loud. And so did the teacher who happened to be my uncle, and my cousin who was also in that biology class. Now granted my uncle teacher tried to save me some embarrassment by telling the class that that was one mountain name for it, and then he asked me if I could tell the class where that name came from. I was good at thinking real fast, since I always had to fast talk myself out of one thing or another. So I took a deep breath and batted my baby blues and said loud and clear in my best voice: "Cause it eats the Lickrish Plant."
I told you my childhood lasted for the longest time. But if you ever come to my house here in western KY, the first thing you will see as you step out of the car is the asparagas and fennel that grow in my front flower garden, very close to my windows so I can see the Lickrish Butterflies.
Thanks to Melody, Jnana, and Bug_Girl for the use of their photos found in Plant Files.
The last photo belongs to the author.
The medicinal use of fennel through history was told to me by Dr. Stuart Urbach, UofL School of Medicine.
My use of the mountain dialect of my childhood is of great comfort to me, it is the sound I love and will respond to every time I hear it. I think we are all like that. You will continue to hear more of it in my articles about Aunt Bett.