Aunt Bett, Church, and the Yarrow ExperienceBy Sharon Brown (Sharran)
August 26, 2008
Right up front I will tell you that I was always proud as punch to be with Aunt Bett. It didn't matter where we were, if I was with her, I was basking in her glory. But there was one time that being with her simply drove me to my knees in a fit of giggles.
By the time I was nearly twelve, I was allowed to walk to church with Aunt Bett on the stretch of road that took us from her house to her church about a mile away. The church was located on the north fork of the Kentucky River, and it was a lovely little brick church sitting alone in a valley with the mountain full of trees behind it and the river flowing in front of it. When I went with her I got to sit in the old wooden benches especially reserved for the "good sisters" of the church.
On the trip down the road Aunt Bett always carried a paper sack and a flashlight. On the night I am remembering, I was the designated flashlight carrier, but she never let anyone carry her old wrinkled brown paper sack. I had a sneaking suspicion of what was in that sack, since I had sneaked a look one time when I found it on the table by the door where it usually waited for her to pick up on her way out. It was like a little black doctor's bag, but instead of instruments she carried a tin of salve, a tiny bottle of a strange colored liquid, a spoon, and her asphidity bag. Sometimes she added a few fresh herb leaves in the summertime. All this was well wrapped in a flannel cloth, and another brown paper bag which served as the lining of the first one.
The trip was a little more than a mile down the road so it took us awhile, this was an evening service and the weather was nice. I don't remember any vehicles passing us, but I do remember that she stopped along the way and picked a couple of leaves from plants that grew by the roadside. She tucked them into the brown paper sack.
We got to church, walked up the steps to the arched doorway and entered. Church had not started yet but folks were taking their seats, and we shuffled up the aisle to the front, up two steps, and then to the second pew on the left of the little stage for the special members. I was proud to be there beside Aunt Bett.
Songs were sung and the sermon commenced. In the middle of the sermon, the rather large older woman beside me began to fidget. She had on some sort of taffeta dress with a very full skirt and she took up a lot of space on the pew. As she shuffled around in her seat, her dress moved ever closer to me. I didn't know her name, but she was familiar since she always sat with the good sisters of the church. Not only did her dress crawl closer to me, but it rustled whenever she moved like a snake slithering through dried leaves. Being a bit irreverent in my thoughts at the time and a bit bored with the sermon, I was very close to a fit of giggles wondering if she had a slithering snake crawling around in all that fabric she was covered in.
Suddenly, she put a handkerchief over her nose and yelled, "Oh, Lawdy!" I looked over the wide expanse of rustling taffeta skirt and her front was covered in little specks of blood. Now when you are going on twelve, blood never bothers you. I punched Aunt Bett who needed no punching since she was already digging in her paper sack. She handed me a couple of small lacy leaves and loudly whispered, "Goldie, put this up yore nose rite now!" And the preacher kept on preaching.
Goldie did as she was told, and moaned a little louder, "Oh, Lawdy, Lawdy!" And the blood kept dripping, and the preacher kept preaching. Aunt Bett again whispered, a little louder this time too: "Goldie, I said PUT, I didn't say POKE that yarrow up yore nose. Here, do it over again with this!" She handed me some little torn up pieces of the same leaf and I handed it carefully toward Goldie. And the preacher kept on preaching, but don't you ever believe anybody heard a word he said.
Being a little gentler with her own nose this time, Goldy and Aunt Bett's yarrow finally got the bleeding to stop. But not before the front of her rustling taffeta dress was speckled in it, and not before I had to ask to be excused before I embarrassed myself for laughing right out loud in the middle of church. And the preacher never did stop preaching.
This of course being an article of sound educational value, we must take a look at the herbal plant Yarrow (Achillea millefolium var.occidentalis). Most of the time Aunt Bett called it bloodwort, but being in church on that particular night I guess she thought the proper name, yarrow, should be used when she talked to poor Goldie. Yarrow has quite a history, its genus name Achillea comes from a mythical Greek character, Achilles, who carried it with his army to treat battle wounds. In the middle ages, yarrow was a part of an herbal mixture known as gruit, used in the flavoring of beer before the use of hops. It was popular as a vegetable in the 17th century and was cooked like spinach or used in a soup. Decoctions were used to treat headaches, infusions were used internally or externally to speed recovery from bruising, but the most medicinally active parts are the flowering tips. They have a mild stimulant effect and have been used as snuff. The flowers can be harvested in summer or fall, and steam from the boiling of the flowers has been used to loosen upper respiratory phlegm, or externally for treating excema as well as inhaling for hay fever or mild asthma. Small pieces of the leaves can be used for clotting, so it can be used to stop nosebleeds, but no poking up the nose, please. Yarrow is still often used in gardens as a companion plant because it repels unwanted insects and attracts those that are good. The leaves are also a good fertilizer and are good in compost. Yarrow is often considered an invasive weed, as many wild plants are, but it served its purpose in history. Herbalists continue its use today, but I wouldn't advise you to use it without consulting proper medical authorities.
Native Americans often chewed the purple part of the root because it has a numbing effect on open sores or for toothaches. The Chinese claimed that yarrow brightened the eyes and promoted intelligence. Yarrow was one of the herbs often used in amulets.
I can't help wondering if yarrow was in my asphidity bag. I doubt that poor Goldie even had one.
Most of my Aunt Bett memories are triggered by her recipes and her herbal directions that I was fortunate enough to inherit. Other sources of information include:
Please take a look at another view of Yarrow in Lois Tilton's article: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/1118/
Photos in Plant Files by Crimsontsavo, Sofonisba, and Happenstance. Thank you, Photographers.