There came a time back in the days of my childhood, when I looked forward to seeing the tiny little white haired lady trudging up the dusty road to my house. I had spent a few uncertain years being a little afraid of her. By the time I was ten or so, she had become my hero and I wanted to grow up to be just like her, a Mountain Medicine woman.
There was nothing that Aunt Bett didn't know, and I absorbed every word she said to me. I don't know why she picked me to follow wherever she led, but there I was, as ready as she was to wear the magic asphidity bag. If she told me it would protect me from all harm, I believed her. Not that I liked the stinking thing, but her word was good enough.
The day I discovered Plumbago started out like most other days with Aunt Bett. We left very early in the morning for the trek up the mountainside, and found ourselves about halfway up by the time the sun was peeking over the mountain. We had traveled a different route on that morning, going to the left instead of to the right of our normal upward path. I was not familiar with that trail, but when we wound our way out of some blackberry vines, there they were right in front of me, thousands of little sky blue flowers. I think Aunt Bett knew that I would like them, because she knew I liked blue. They were so pretty dressed in early morning dew that I wanted to just plunge myself right into the middle of them. But Aunt Bett had other ideas.
Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), the kind that grew in the mountains of southeast Kentucky, was also called leadwort by Aunt Bett. It had long been used to cure lead poisoning. It was also used to treat inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and as an application for some skin disorders. On this particular day, Aunt Bett was looking for Plumbago to use as a treatment for ringworm. I was not sure what ringworm was, the image came to mind of a bunch of worms going round and round in a circle, and to this day when I hear the word ringworm, I can still see those worms. As usual, Aunt Bett was of a serious mind, so I listened as she told me what we were going to do. There must have been thousands of plants because they covered a large flat area on the mountainside. She said we would take enough of the whole plants so that we could use some for an infusion and some for a decoction. The decoction would be made into a liquid and also into a salve to rub onto the affected area. It all sounded pretty nasty to me because I was still seeing that circle of worms.
Plumbago loves heat, it is drought tolerant and it blooms non stop from summer till early frost. It can take shade and still bloom, it is disease free, and most animals won't bother it. In warmer areas than our mountains, it remains in foliage through the winter and is really beautiful as the foliage becomes a nice fall shade of red. In our mountains however, it died down in the winter, to return in mid spring. Butterflies love it.
She took out our burlap bag, and began to fill it with Plumbago. Sometime during the process, I discovered that the little blue flowers were very sticky when pulled from the plant, so I picked a couple to decorate the lobes of my ears, then one on my cheek, a couple in my hair, until I was told to quit dallying and to add more plants to the bag. I had visions of making blue dye from the blossoms, but Aunt Bett told me that all parts of the plant would be used for medicine. She gathered from one side of the little field of Plumbago and I gathered from the other, leaving the middle intact. I decided that I would find my way back later and would collect enough blue flowers to make my own dye.
We walked down the mountain with our burlap bag pretty well filled with Plumbago. I asked Aunt Bett if I could have one of the plants to put in my own yard. I had visions of growing my own blue flower earrings. She told me that I could and I was happy with her answer. Before the day was over we had washed each plant in fresh well water and hung about half of them in bunches from the rafters of her back porch. The other half she chopped and boiled three times to make a decoction. The dried Plumbago would be chopped and used for infusions, pouring boiling water over the dried plant pieces, allowing it to steep, strain, and drink as a tea. The tea would help clear up inflammations. By evening, the decoction was ready to pour into small bottles and sealed, or mixed with lard and beeswax to make a salve. She was in a hurry because in the morning a young mother was bringing her two little boys to be treated for ringworm.
Ringworm is not as bad as it sounds, but it is a skin irritation caused by certain bacteria and fungi that live on the surface of our skin. When there is a scratch or a cut, they can enter the body and create irritation which erupts as a ring shaped infection on the part of the body near where it entered. Evidently it was a successful cure because Aunt Bett didn't have too many who returned after she gave them a little tin of salve to rub on it. So Aunt Bett treated another malady, and I had a plant for my own garden. Visions of blue earrings danced in my head.
When I think about the all the decoctions and infusions that we made during those years, and I remember the knowledge that Aunt Bett shared with me, I find myself digging for more information on the plants she depended on to provide treatments for so many people. Aunt Bett didn't have internet, and she certainly did not have medical training, so how did she know what part plants played in curing illnesses? In gathering current information on Plumbago, it is just as Aunt Bett said with one exception. Scientists and medical professionals today are studying the possibility that Plumbago could be of possible theraputic value for Parkinson's Disease. I think Aunt Bett had more knowledge than even she realized.
If I ever have a granddaughter, I will show her how to make blue flowered earrings, and tell her stories about her Great-great-great Aunt Bett.
All pictures are from Plant Files. Thanks to Dave, Terry, Htop, and Mgarr for the photos.
Information concerning current research on Plumbago came from Dr. Stuart Urbach, Louisville, KY.