(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 26, 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.)
Charlie and Emma Mae lived a little past my schoolhouse, on up the road from Aunt Bett. They had a couple of children who were in school with me, and they also had two more in high school. There were times when the youngest child, a little girl named Anita, came to school in tears. I worried about things like that, mostly because I was not the crying kind no matter what happened, and it was hard for me to understand what could make a little girl cry. Oh, I knew about pain and sometimes that brought tears, but Anita was not in pain that I could tell. Yet she never would tell anybody what she was crying about. Not knowing what to do about it, we usually just patted her shoulder and tried to get her to play jacks at recess. One cold winter day several of the kids in my classroom were absent. Most had stayed home because it was so cold, and some were sick with winter colds, but Anita came to school. She was crying as usual.
I said: "Nita, you been cryin' most everday for a month. Now what in the world are you cryin' bout?" After a few sniffles and a couple of hiccups, Anita said: "My ma left us and we ain't got no mother anymore." Well. I decided to sit right down and cry with her. I couldn't imagine not having a mother. That evening I stopped by Aunt Bett's house on my way home. It being wintertime, we hadn't been up on the mountain in awhile and I missed being with her. Anita's problem was on my mind, so I decided Aunt Bett might know a cure for it. It couldn't hurt a thing to ask.
"Aunt Bett, Nita's ma left her and isn't livin' with the fam'ly any more. What's gonna happen to Nita and the others? You reckon her ma is dead? Where would she go, Aunt Bett, if she isn't dead?"
Aunt Bett looked at me for a long time, then she explained to me about divorce. I don't think I had ever even heard the word before, but by the time she was through, I found out the whole story about Anita. And I also learned a lot about a Native American belief as well.
Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) is a plant that grows wild in some parts of the mountains. It grows in boggy soil, and many of the valleys in the mountains had low areas that collected water from the mountain sources and seemed never to dry out. It wasn't really swampy land, but in the middle of a hot July it could still be muddy. I was familiar with the flower since it was my favorite bluish color, but I had never known Aunt Bett to use it for anything. She told me that it was used many years ago by Native Americans, but since that time other plants had seemed to be more effective, so it was not one that she used very often. Her grandmother who was part Cherokee used an infusion of the roots of the great blue lobelia and cardinal flower to treat nosebleed, and the crushed leaves of the plant were used as a poultice for a headache. Sometimes it was used as a cough medicine, and a poultice of the leaves could be applied to a sore that was hard to heal. And then she told me about Charlie and Emma Mae.
It seems that Emma Mae didn't like being married, and once she got all her children in school, she decided she wanted to move on and find herself another life in a city up north. Emma Mae had come from the north, and according to Aunt Bett she had never been happy living in the mountains so far away from her own mother.
"Ol' Charlie come to me in the dark of the night not so long ago, and he asked me about a remedy for divorce. I told him that I ain't got no such thing, but he kept insistin' till finally I told him all I knowed about it. My granma's cure for a divorce was to mash the roots of the great blue lobelia and to put it secretly into some mashed potatoes in a big bowl. Then when both the man an' his wife ate the potatoes with the mashed lobelia roots, they'd be cured of gettin' a divorce. I told Charlie that it wouldn't work, but he wanted some lobelia roots anyway. So I give him some. Whether he snuck them into some potatoes or not, I don't know, 'cause Emma Mae hitched her way north, and she ain't comin' back. Ol' Charlie's just gonna have to raise them kids his own self."
Of course I had to do some research before writing about lobelia, and I found what Aunt Bett told me to be true. The plant contains lobeline, which has an effect on the nervous system similar to that of nicotine. Somehow she might have known that and realized it caused more problems than it cured.
I learned a lot about life and people as well as Aunt Bett's uses for plants. I guess one was as equally important as the other. I don't know what happened to Charlie or to Emma Mae, but I do know that Anita finished high school and I went on to college. When I returned home for Thanksgiving that year, I stopped by to visit with Aunt Bett. She told me that she had heard that Anita married some boy and they went up north to find work. I like to think that she also found her mother.
Resources for verification: http://www.gardenguides.com/plants/plantguides/flowers/plantguide.asp?symbol=LOSI
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers for the use of their photos: Wallaby1 and poppysue.