Snakeroot and Ol' Larrnce
Ol' Larrnce was a contemporary of Aunt Bett's and she had treated him for everything from headlice to chigger bites and told him more than once that he ought to take a bath at least once a month. He lived alone in the old log cabin where he had been raised. He was the last of his family, and never having been married or fathered a child that I knew of, he was the last of his line. The log cabin had two rooms, side by side, and a front porch. He had a big garden out back and somewhere away from all those rows of corn and pole beans there was an outhouse.
It seems that Ol' Larrnce had a snake that lived in or near that outhouse so Ol Lawrence had to change some habits and build himself a new one a little closer, but not too close, to his house. He built it so that it sat with the backside propped up on logs just over the creek that ran down beside his log cabin. The old one was a two seater as I remember, but the new one was just a one seater because he claimed he "never had no company no way". He was proud of that outhouse and whenever anybody on the road passed his house he invited them to walk on back a ways to take a look at it. "I outsmarted that thar snake," he'd say. "I just built me a new outhouse." It was pretty classy looking for an outhouse, with a half moon carved in the door and a wood latch on the inside to keep the snakes out while Ol' Larrnce was in there.
Aunt Bett wasn't much into the snake business, and though I had seen her treat a snake bite a time or two, she didn't really like to have anything to do with snakes or their bites. There were copperheads and rattlesnakes in our mountains, along with some others that were harmless, and I learned pretty fast to stay away from places where snakes might be. By the time of the Ol' Larrnce story, she had taught me to make a decoction from the Liatris spicata that grew along the edge of her garden. We would gather the leaves in summer and dry them, then when late fall came we would gather the roots. Using both we made a decoction just to use for snakebite. Sometimes it sat on a shelf for a couple of years without being needed, but it was always there just in case.
Liatris had a couple of common names, in the mountains it was called Snakeroot, but in later years I found that its most common name was Gayfeather. I loved the plant, beautiful tall spikes that ended the summer in a very feathery white bloom. It was fun to take those spikes when they were about half bloomed and hang them upside down in my little closet under the eaves of my upstairs room. The closet ran the whole length of the house, so there was a lot of space and a pretty cold draft in the winter time, but by Christmas, I always got the dried spikes out and added them to branches of pine for decorations.
One warm September day I was walking past Ol' Larrnce's house and happened to see him way in the distance in front of his new outhouse slinging what I thought was a rope round and round his head. I stopped to watch and he slung that rope as far from himself as it would go. He turned and ran back to the house, saw me and said: "Chile, go git yore Aunt Bett, I'm a fightin' that copperheaded snake again , it done found my new outhouse and moved right in. I think I might be needin' her hep. Ain't room in that outhouse for me 'n that snake." Then he turned and started walking in the direction that he had slung that snake. Scared me to death! Ol' Larrnce was fighting with a snake, and I just knew somebody was going to get hurt. So I ran down the road and told Aunt Bett. "Laudy, mercy, that ol man ain't got no sense atall. Iffen he'd leave that snake alone, it'd leave him alone. Run outyonderways and dig up some o' that snakeroot, and let's go see what kinda trouble Ol' Larrnce done got hisself into." So I dug up some of the Gayfeather root, and grabbed a small rounded rock that I could use to bruise the roots with, just like she had taught me to do. We could hear him from his yard, "Oh Lawd hit ain't my time yet oh Lawd don't take me I ain't ready".
Well, my heart fell to my feet, but Aunt Bett dragged me into the house with her. We found Ol' Larrnce sitting on a kitchen chair with his arm held up against his chest and sweat dripping off his face. "Did that old snake git you, Larrnce?" asked Aunt Bett. "Oh Lawd, Betty Ann, I ain't got much time left, not much time atall." Aunt Bett pulled his arm down and tore the shirtsleeve all the way up to the shoulder, and sure enough there were two little puncture wounds and his arm was already swelling. I started pounding on the roots of the gayfeather to bruise them, and Aunt Bett did something with her knife to the arm, then grabbed the bottle of decoction and mixed it into a little buttermilk she found out on the table. She made Ol' Larrnce drink the mixture and then she started applying the bruised root to the bites, wrapping a piece of clean white cloth around the bloody swelling arm. In the meantime, I started smelling something cooking and realized the cook stove was pretty hot. I didn't see a thing cooking on top of the stove, and wondered what might be in the oven. Aunt Bett must have wondered the same thing because while Larrnce sat there and sweated and moaned she asked him what he was cooking for supper. Ol' Larrnce looked up and smiled a crooked little smile, "Why, Betty Ann, that ol' copperheaded rattle moccasin mighta got the besta me, but I got the besta him, too. I done catched him and threw him in the oven."
Old Lawrence lived to see another day, and I don't remember exactly what he did with the baked snake, or the oven it baked in, but once again all was right in his world.
My stories are usually triggered by plants, and this year since I had Aunt Bett on my mind more than usual, when my Liatris popped up looking gorgeous in its bright green foliage, I immediately thought of Old Lawrence flinging that snake through the air. In my research on the plant I found that indeed our Native Americans used the plants in much the same way as Aunt Bett. I am not sure of the exact type of snake that Old Lawrence battled, but I am sure it was of a mildly poisonous variety. I found that the leaves of gayfeather contain coumarins which produce an anti clotting effect, and will prevent any natural clotting. I suspect Aunt Bett had that in mind when she cut his arm to allow his blood to wash away the venom. The plant grows in meadows, on dry ridges, and is fairly drought resistant. It is pollinated by bees and it attracts wildlife. Its leaves and root are antibacterial, astringent, diuretic, a stimulant and a tonic. It seems to be effective when used as a local application for sore throats. Both the leaves and the roots can be used fresh or dried.
I also found that the leaves and roots are often added to various herbal insect repellants. I don't remember that Aunt Bett used it for anything except snake bite, but I loved to harvest it along with the yarrow that grew nearby. Then I would bring them out of the attic closet for decorations at Thanksgiving and again with greenery for Christmas. I haven't thought of Ol' Larrnce, as Aunt Bett called him, for a long time. I seem to remember that he lived in that two room log cabin till he was very old and finally caught it afire one night when he forgot to clean out his chimney after several years. He survived the fire, but I wondered if maybe another of his copperheaded rattle moccasins might not have got the best of him by curling up and blocking his chimney late one fall. You never know about mountain critters. They and their offspring might have long memories.
Photos are from plant files. Special thanks to these photographers: Equilibrium, Wilmetge, and LilyLover_UT.
I do not suggest using this plant for home remedies, without the advice of a medical specialist.
For current information on treating snakebite, go here: http://www.fda.gov/Fdac/features/995_snakes.html
Thank you, Critterologist.
All other information came from my own Aunt Bett files. Thank you dear Aunt Bett.
(Editor's note: This article was originally published on September 9, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)