Recently my friend Melody Rose wrote an article for Dave's Garden and its subject was indigo dye. When I read the article, I had one of those deja vu moments. Sometime in the past I had made an indigo blue dye from a plant in southeast Kentucky where I grew up. I knew it was not indigo, but it took an evening of searching through Aunt Bett's notes before I found it: Baptisia. She of course had a different name for it as well as a different use, but her Horsefly Weed sure did produce a fine blue dye for me!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 6, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Terms of endearment collided with proper names when I was a little girl. I didn't have a very large family but I had friends of all ages. Since I traipsed all over the mountains with Aunt Bett for so many years, her friends became my friends. It was not uncommon for me to call them by the same names she used for them, and to me they were terms of endearment mixed in with all my yes sirs and yes ma'ams.
Pappy Joe was one of my friends. He lived much farther up the hollow than I did, but I knew him because I had gone with Aunt Bett to take some medicine to him when he had a recurring sore throat. He lived in a low lying stone and log house, and I remember that it had a huge magnolia tree in the front yard. That old magnolia was big enough to completely shade his front porch, and I thought it was the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. I spent many summers just thinking up excuses to go visit him and sit beneath the shade of that tree.
Pappy Joe told me many stories about the mountains and all the farming he had done. I vaguely remember stories about WWI, and stories about the first car he ever saw, but more important to me were the stories about his wife and young son. Pappy Joe was older than Aunt Bett so he must have been in his late seventies when I was visiting him. He was stooped and walked with a hand carved walking stick made out of sassafras, he told me. His snow white beard covered most of his lined face, but those blue eyes of his twinkled whenever he told me his stories.
"I built me this house the year 'fore me and Maw was married, took me near a year to git the walls up. She come from over in Virginna, and brung with her the seeds to start that magnolia tree. She watered them seeds most ever day, till up sprung one little leaf. Warn't long before it had more leaves, and 'fore I knew it, it had a flower or two on it. Maw sure was proud of that tree, and I reckon it's 'bout the finest tree 'round these here parts. When Little Joe was a boy, it was the first tree he climbed, and the first tree he fell out of. That old tree has 'bout as many tales to tell as I do."
And Pappy Joe could sure tell some tales. His wife had died of rheumatic fever not long into their marriage, and Pappy Joe had raised Little Joe all by himself. Little Joe had gone on to Detroit to work on the car line, just as many folks who wanted out of the mountains and into work had done, so Pappy Joe didn't get to see him very often. But he sure was proud of Little Joe. And I sure did love Pappy Joe.
During the winter before my wild indigo story, Pappy Joe had come down with a bad cold, and Aunt Bett had treated him all winter as best she could. Come springtime, he was left with a raw sore throat and he talked in a whisper much of the time. I started going to his house with Aunt Bett at about the same time she was treating him for his sore throat. That is when I learned about wild indigo, or as Aunt Bett called it, horsefly weed.
The Native Americans made a decoction of the root of the plant and used it as an antiseptic wash for surface sores, but Aunt Bett also thought it would help heal Pappy Joe's sore throat if he gargled it. She considered it somewhat toxic, so she stood watch over him to make sure he gargled and didn't swallow. She said it was good for mouth ulcers, so it should work for anything that might be happening in his throat. Truth is, Pappy Joe probably had tonsillitis, but in those days old folks in the mountains didn't have much to do with doctors, so they often treated themselves or found a Medicine Woman to treat them. So Pappy Joe gargled for Aunt Bett and after a time began to feel better.
Wild indigo or horsefly weed carries the name Amorpha fruticosa. It has a 2 to 3 foot high stem, and I remember that the blooms on it were yellow, but the fruit of the weed is blue black. It was more of a bush or a shrub than a weed, and it grew in the woods and on the hillsides, so it wasn't difficult to find. I remember that the bush we went to most often for gathering horsefly weed was located on an outcropping of rock in fairly poor soil. It blooms from early summer to fall. Some folks ate the young shoots like poke, but if its growth is too far along it will be toxic.
Aunt Bett only used it for medicinal purposes, and in her notes she mentions that it was used for gangrene, and for bed sores that form on folks who have been bedridden for awhile. In doing a little research outside her notes, I do find that it has antiseptic qualities. She used both the root and the leaves in her decoctions, but another strange thing that I remember from those days is that when we gathered it and hung it to dry, the entire plant turned black. One word of caution here, if Aunt Bett thought it was poisonous, it probably was, and I know for a fact that she only used it as a surface treatment. She watched Pappy Joe like a hawk to make sure he didn't swallow it.
In the summertime, it was not unusual to see a black bundle of dried horsefly weed hanging beside the open doors of homes in the hollows. Most folks didn't have a screen door and the horsefly weed was said to repel flies. Maybe that's where its common name came from.
As you well know by now, that is not the end of the wild indigo story. My mother made all my clothes, and by using no pattern at all she could whip up the cutest pinafores you ever saw. A piece of bleached muslin gathered on a band around the waist with a bib on top could easily become a dress up outfit, if you added ruffles to the straps that crossed the shoulders and put it on over a pretty blouse. Well, do you remember my poke berry story, and the red dye I made from those berries? I surely hope you do because I also made some wonderful blue dye from those blue black berries and leaves of the wild indigo. I happened to have several white pinafores when I was little, and I talked my mother into letting me have one just to play in.
I gathered my red dye, my blue dye, and snitched a paint brush from my dad's coffee can full of clean brushes. It was a little brush, so I wasn't worried about it being missed. There was a very large flat rock on the hillside that was my back yard. I was most creative on that rock because that is where I always sat when I was thinking up things to do next. I laid that bleached muslin pinafore out on the rock, and I painted red and blue stars and stripes all over it.
Well, you see, it was close to July, and I had had that dye for a while without painting or dyeing a thing with it. If I hadn't used it, I just knew it was going to "go bad". I wore my patriotic pinafore when we went to town to see the fireworks, and then I wore it up to Pappy Joe's not long after.
"Lawdy, chile, you shore do brighten up my day!" And he gave me a salute. That was my friend, Pappy Joe.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to debnes_dfw_tx for the thumbnail and the green stalk image, and Greenish for the darker stalk image.
All other information came from family records and Aunt Bett's writings.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.