(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 30, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
I guess Aunt Bett must have watched every move I made, because if she hadn't I would never have survived to tell these tales. I had a really bad habit of tasting plants. I chewed on sourweed, sucked honeysuckle, tasted clover to see what the bees found so interesting, and chomped around on twigs from the sassafras tree. I sucked on the poplar leaves to make them pop, and I could make an amazing whistle by stretching a blade of grass straight up and down between my thumbs. Still can. Now Aunt Bett knew all of that and she never said a word, except when I sucked on the poplar leaf and she told me I was going to suck the whole leaf down my throat and choke to death. And when I sucked the juice from the wild honeysuckle and she told me to watch out that I didn't swallow a bee.
Rarely during those days was there ever any gum around. Occasionally one of my aunts would treat me to a stick of Black Jack, or Clove, and even more rarely somebody would hand me a Chiclet. Those were real treats. I was never allowed to have Dubble Bubble, though, because my mother was sure my teeth would fall out. Little did she know that I was out chewing weeds.
My favorite chewing plant that I could depend on for gum every day of the summer was the compass plant, but Aunt Bett called it rosin weed. She gathered it when she could find it to use for her medical treatments, so I knew about it for many years. I also knew a lot about its history since she made sure I learned a thing or two every time we went in search of a new plant. Finally one year she planted it in the back of her garden against the fence row.
Silphium laciniatum grew in east central North America. It is similar to the sunflower, and it has bristly hairy leaves. It grows fairly tall and is in bloom from July to September. Aunt Bett told me that the plant was used by Native Americans to find their direction when they were lost and by those explorers who traveled from the east to the west to find gold in California. The plant tends to align its foliage north and south to minimize its surface area to the hot noon sun, and since it grew out in the open in the mountains, it did get a lot of sun. When you grow up in southeast Kentucky you find out pretty quickly that when you are up on the side of the mountain under a shade tree, it is a whole lot hotter out in the middle of the cornfield.
Since Aunt Bett had some compass plant growing along the fence row in the back of the garden, it was pretty easy for me to crack a stalk and chew the hardened balsamic sap like gum. It had a very deep tap root, and I remember once when the field was cleared someone dug up one of those taproots and it must have been 10 feet long. I really didn't want it to be dug up because that meant I had to get the gum from the dusty compass plants that grew along side the road. There is nothing worse than gritty chewing gum.
Aunt Bett used most parts of the plant as she usually did. She made infusions, decoctions and extractions to treat various ailments. It was a treatment for rheumatism, a diuretic, and as a general tonic just to help people feel better. It cured fever, coughs, asthma, and for goodness' sakes, she gave it to Uncle Dock to cure heaves in his old mule that pulled the plow. I doubt that it is recommended for any of these treatments today, but it certainly is not a harmful plant. And if you are ever lost, it will point you north or south.
I reckon it was a pretty good plant to have around.
All information about the Compass Plant came from the writings of my great Aunt Bett.
All photos are from Plant files. Thank you, Equilibrium, for your great photography.